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A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bryson Bill

A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bryson Bill

Author:Bryson, Bill [Bill, Bryson,]
Format: epub, mobi
ISBN: 076790818X
Published: 2010-06-03T04:00:00+00:00


A Short History of Nearly Everything

CHAPTER 17: INTO THE TROPOSPHERE

THANK GOODNESS FOR the atmosphere. It keeps us warm. Without it, Earth would be a lifeless ball of ice with an average temperature of minus 60 degrees Fahrenheit. In addition, the atmosphere absorbs or deflects incoming swarms of cosmic rays, charged particles, ultraviolet rays, and the like. Altogether, the gaseous padding of the atmosphere is equivalent to a fifteen-foot thickness of protective concrete, and without it these invisible visitors from space would slice through us like tiny daggers. Even raindrops would pound us senseless if it weren’t for the atmosphere’s slowing drag.

The most striking thing about our atmosphere is that there isn’t very much of it. It extends upward for about 120 miles, which might seem reasonably bounteous when viewed from ground level, but if you shrank the Earth to the size of a standard desktop globe it would only be about the thickness of a couple of coats of varnish.

For scientific convenience, the atmosphere is divided into four unequal layers: troposphere, stratosphere, mesosphere, and ionosphere (now often called the thermosphere). The troposphere is the part that’s dear to us. It alone contains enough warmth and oxygen to allow us to function, though even it swiftly becomes uncongenial to life as you climb up through it. From ground level to its highest point, the troposphere (or “turning sphere”) is about ten miles thick at the equator and no more than six or seven miles high in the temperate latitudes where most of us live. Eighty percent of the atmosphere’s mass, virtually all the water, and thus virtually all the weather are contained within this thin and wispy layer. There really isn’t much between you and oblivion.

Beyond the troposphere is the stratosphere. When you see the top of a storm cloud flattening out into the classic anvil shape, you are looking at the boundary between the troposphere and stratosphere. This invisible ceiling is known as the tropopause and was discovered in 1902 by a Frenchman in a balloon, Léon-Philippe Teisserenc de Bort.Pause in this sense doesn’t mean to stop momentarily but to cease altogether; it’s from the same Greek root asmenopause . Even at its greatest extent, the tropopause is not very distant. A fast elevator of the sort used in modern skyscrapers could get you there in about twenty minutes, though you would be well advised not to make the trip. Such a rapid ascent without pressurization would, at the very least, result in severe cerebral and pulmonary edemas, a dangerous excess of fluids in the body’s tissues. When the doors opened at the viewing platform, anyone inside would almost certainly be dead or dying. Even a more measured ascent would be accompanied by a great deal of discomfort. The temperature six miles up can be -70 degrees Fahrenheit, and you would need, or at least very much appreciate, supplementary oxygen.

After you have left the troposphere the temperature soon warms up again, to about 40 degrees Fahrenheit, thanks to the absorptive effects of ozone (something else de Bort discovered on his daring 1902 ascent).



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