Chemical composition of the atmosphere

The early Greeks considered “air” to be one of four elementary substances; along with earth, fire, and water, air was viewed as a fundamental component of the universe. By the early 1800s, however, scientists such as John Dalton recognized that the atmosphere was in fact composed of several chemically distinct gases, which he was able to separate and determine the relative amounts of within the lower atmosphere. He was easily able to discern the major components of the atmosphere: nitrogen, oxygen, and a small amount of something incombustible, later shown to be argon.

The development of the spectrometer in the 1920s allowed scientists to find gases that existed in much smaller concentrations in the atmosphere, such as ozone and carbon dioxide. The concentrations of these gases, while small, varied widely from place to place. In fact, atmospheric gases are often divided up into the major, constant components and the highly variable components, as shown in Table 1 and Table 2.


Nitrogen (N2) 78.08%
Oxygen (O2) 20.95%
Argon (Ar) 0.93%
Neon, Helium, Krypton 0.0001%




Table 1: Constant Components. Proportions remain the same over time and location.


Carbon dioxide (CO2) 0.038%
Water vapor (H2O) 0-4%
Methane (CH4) trace
Sulfur dioxide (SO2) trace
Ozone (O3) trace
Nitrogen oxides (NO, NO2, N20) trace




Table 2: Variable Components. Amounts vary over time and location.

Although both nitrogen and oxygen are essential to human life on the planet, they have little effect on weather and other atmospheric processes. The variable components, which make up far less than 1 percent of the atmosphere, have a much greater influence on both short-term weather and long-term climate. For example, variations in water vapor in the atmosphere are familiar to us as relative humidity. Water vapor, CO2, CH4, N2O, and SO2 all have an important property: They absorb heat emitted by Earth and thus warm the atmosphere, creating what we call the “greenhouse effect.” Without these so-called greenhouse gases, the Earth’s surface would be about 30 degrees Celsius cooler – too cold for life to exist as we know it. Though the greenhouse effect is sometimes portrayed as a bad thing, trace amounts of gases like CO2 warm our planet’s atmosphere enough to sustain life. Global warming, on the other hand, is a separate process that can be caused by increased amounts of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

In addition to gases, the atmosphere also contains particulate matter such as dust, volcanic ash, rain, and snow. These are, of course, highly variable and are generally less persistent than gas concentrations, but they can sometimes remain in the atmosphere for relatively long periods of time. Volcanic ash from the 1991 eruption of Mt. Pinatubo in the Philippines, for example, darkened skies around the globe for over a year.

Though the major components of the atmosphere vary little today, they have changed dramatically over Earth’s history, about 4.6 billion years. The early atmosphere was hardly the life-sustaining blanket of air that it is today; most geologists believe that the main constituents then were nitrogen gas and carbon dioxide, but no free oxygen. In fact, there is no evidence for free oxygen in the atmosphere until about 2 billion years ago, when photosynthesizing bacteria evolved and began taking in atmospheric carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen. The amount of oxygen in the atmosphere has risen steadily from 0 percent 2 billion years ago to about 21 percent today.