The Atmosphere Part 2

jet wing

Jets fly in the tropopause to take advantage of the Jetstream there. Santa Claus likely takes advantage of the Jetstream as well since he has to cover the entire planet in a night.

As much as we should appreciate and protect the atmosphere that immediately embraces this planet, the other layers of the atmosphere are essential too and provide services we may not readily recognize.

The junction between layers of atmosphere is usually not a discreet line, but rather a transition zone where one blends into another. The change may happen over miles. These transitions are called pauses and can act as additional layers in some cases. For example, the tropopause exists between the troposphere, the layer that kisses the Earth, and the stratosphere, the next layer up. If you are an airline traveler, you have been in the tropopause as this is where the jet streams form, pushing jets from west to east.

The stratosphere extends from the tropopause to around 31 miles above the Earth’s surface. It is still relatively full of gases with about 19 percent of the total atmospheric gas, but almost no water vapor. In the troposphere, air gets cooler with altitude. In the stratosphere, just the opposite is true, with temperatures increasing from -60 degrees F. to 5 degrees F. The temperature shift is due to the heat produced in the formation of ozone. Having warmer air on top of cooler air means that there is no convection and upward movement of gases. It forms a definite broad line above the tropopause. If you have ever seen a huge cumulonimbus cloud with its anvil-like top, you have seen the bottom of the stratosphere, as the clouds can rise no higher than this.

The mesosphere is above the stratosphere and extends to about 53 miles above the Earth. This is a very cold place with temperatures as low as -184 degrees F. It is also the least understood of all the atmospheric layers. It is too high for airplanes and weather balloons and too low for space travelers. There are three phenomena here that are of interest. First, there are noctilucent clouds, wispy clouds sometimes visible at sunset. These are by far the highest clouds you will see and are essentially ice clouds formed from what little water vapor is there. The other two phenomena are called sprites and elves. “Sprites are reddish, vertical electrical discharges that appear high above thunderheads, in the upper stratosphere and mesosphere. Elves are dim, halo-shaped discharges that appear even higher in the mesosphere (National Geographic).”

The ionosphere, a layer of free electrons and ions, is an anomaly in that it extends down into the mesosphere and all the way through the thermosphere to the exosphere or last atmospheric layer before outer space. It is in part responsible for modern communication. In 1901, Guglielmo Marconi, the “Father of Wireless,” proved that radio signals bounce off the ionosphere instead of traveling in a straight line by sending a radio message from England to Canada. If the waves traveled in a straight line, this would not have been possible due to the curvature of the Earth.

This layer is divided into four distinct sublayers. Two of these layers disappear at night allowing AM radio stations to increase their broadcast reach by hundreds of miles after dark.

One final thing about the ionosphere: it reflects solar winds full of highly charged particles that create auroras called the Northern and Southern Lights.

The thermosphere is the thickest layer of the atmosphere and contains only the lightest gases. Scattered molecules absorb x-rays and ultraviolet radiation, which sends the molecules speeding away and creating high temperatures. This layer has the highest temperatures, some reaching as high as 2,700 degrees F. However, because there are so few molecules in this layer, there is very little heat transfer so to our skin it would still feel cold.

The exosphere is the final layer before outer space. It extends from about 375 miles to as far as 6,200 miles above the Earth as it expands and contracts with solar storms. This is the layer where satellites orbit and it is full of hydrogen. Particles in this layer routinely escape to space.

From space, the atmosphere around the Earth seems like not much more than an icing on a cake. It isn’t just for show though. It is vital to life on this planet and gives a jolly old elf someplace to joyride.

TAX DAY is coming! Here is a chance to do something good with a bit of your tax return and make the day less painful.

Donate part of your tax return to support wildlife in Idaho!

On the second page of the Idaho Individual Tax form 40 you have the opportunity to donate to the “Nongame Wildlife Conservation Fund”.

Check-off this box on your next return or ask your tax preparer to mark the Nongame check-off on your behalf. You can donate any amount you wish, it all helps to support the wildlife you love.

If you are not from Idaho, check with your own state wildlife agency about how you can help. Many states have a similar program.

Help Idaho Wildlife

When we traveled across the state in October 2017, most of the vehicles we saw using the wildlife management areas did not have wildlife plates. Buying wildlife plates is a great way for non-hunters and hunters alike to support wildlife-based recreation like birding.

C'mon folks, let's help Idaho's wildlife by proudly buying and displaying a wildlife license plate on each of our vehicles! 

See below for information on Idaho plates. Most states have wildlife plates so if you live outside Idaho, check with your state's wildlife department or vehicle licensing division for availability of state wildlife plates where you live. 

And tell them that you heard about it from!

Wildlife License Plates

Idaho Wildlife license plates provide essential funding that benefits the great diversity of native plants and wildlife that are not hunted, fished or trapped—over 10,000 species or 98% of Idaho’s species diversity. Game species that share the same habitats (such as elk, deer, antelope, sage-grouse, salmon, trout) also benefit from these specialty plates.

No state tax dollars are provided for wildlife diversity, conservation education and recreation programs. Neither are any revenues from the sale of hunting or fishing licenses spent on nongame species. Instead, these species depend on direct donations, federal grants, fundraising initiatives—and the Idaho Wildlife license plates.

Both my vehicles have Bluebird Plates. I prefer the bluebird because the nongame program gets 70 percent of the money from bluebird plates, but only 60 percent of the money from elk and trout plates - 10 percent of the money from elk plates supports wildlife disease monitoring and testing programs (to benefit the livestock industry) and 10 percent from cutthroat plates supports non-motorized boat access.

Incidentally, in 2014, the Idaho Legislature denied the Department of Fish and Game the ability to add new plates or even to change the name of the elk and cutthroat plates (very specific) to wildlife and fish plates, a move that would have allowed for changing images occasionally and generating more revenue. It would seem that they believe that we Idahoans don't want a well funded wildlife program.

I think it is time we let the Legislature know that Idahoan support wildlife funding and that we would like to see these generic plates come to fruition.

"WOW. What a phenomenal piece you wrote. You are amazing." Jennifer Jackson

That is embarrassing, but actually a fairly typical response to my nature essays. Since The Best of Nature is created from the very best of 16 years of these nature essays published weekly in the Idaho Falls Post Register (online readership 70,000), it is a fine read. It covers a wide variety of topics including humorous glimpses of nature, philosophy, natural history, and conservation. Readers praise the style, breadth of subject matter and my ability to communicate complex and emotional topics in a relaxed and understandable manner.

Everyone can find something to love in this book. From teenagers to octogenarians, from the coffee shop to the school room, these nature essays are widely read and enjoyed.

Some of the essays here are my personal favorites, others seemed to strike a chord with readers. Most have an important message or lesson that will resonate with you. They are written with a goal to simultaneously entertain and educate about the wonderful workings of nature. Some will make you laugh out loud and others will bring a tear to the eye and warm your heart.

Readers Write:

"You hit a home run with your article on, Big Questions in Nature. It should be required reading for everyone who has lost touch with nature...great job!" Joe Chapman

"We enjoyed your column, Bloom Where Planted. Some of the best writing yet. The Post Register is fortunate to have your weekly columns." Lou Griffin.

To read more and to order a copy, click here or get the Kindle version 


Copies are also available at:

Post Register

Island Park Builders Supply (upstairs)

Barnes and Noble in Idaho Falls

Harriman State Park, Island Park

Museum of Idaho

Valley Books, Jackson Wyoming

Avocet Corner Bookstore, Bear River National Wildlife Refuge, Brigham City, Utah

Craters of the Moon National Monument Bookstore, Arco, Idaho