Week 9, Day 2: The Atmosphere

The atmosphere on Earth makes our planet uniquely able to support human life! This shot by the International Space Station crew shows a crescent moon through the top of Earth’s atmosphere. (Photo by NASA Earth Observatory)

During week nine of Take It Outside, we are learning about our climate!

Earth’s atmosphere is crucial to maintaining a livable climate, and today we explore the part it plays in supporting life, and how changes humans are making to our atmosphere affects our climate.

Upcoming Event:

Join us tonight at 7 PM for a live-streamed composting summit! Local experts will discuss different approaches to home composting, as well as composting proposals for the community. Learn how to get started with composting or how to expand your current setup at this event. Find out more and register here.

Blog Post:

Atmospheric scientist and McCurdy Charter School sixth grade teacher Christy Wall discusses how our atmosphere allows life to flourish on Earth. Read her post here.


Convection currents in our oceans and atmosphere work to transfer heat throughout the planet. Create a simple convection model to represent how warm air can be transported to cooler areas of the Earth. See instructions here. Consider how this movement of heat affects our climate!


Outdoor Challenge (Beginner):

Look for soaring birds, like this Red-tailed Hawk, that are riding on thermals in our skies. (Photo by Mouser Williams)

Look for signs of convection in the atmosphere around you. You can’t see air, but there are a few phenomena that make convection in air visible:

  • The formation of cumulus clouds. The sun shines on and heats the ground, which then heats pockets of air above it. These pockets of heated air rise until they are cool enough to condense into clouds. Clouds form above pockets of warm, rising air, whereas clear blue patches between clouds represent areas where cool air is sinking. Learn more about the formation of convective clouds in this short video.
  • Large birds take advantage of rising columns of air, or thermals, to help lift them into the sky. Look for Turkey Vultures, ravens, and hawks circling higher and higher as the sun starts to heat the ground and air begins to rise.


Outdoor Challenge (Advanced):

Explore the greenhouse effect outside. Find a clear container, and place it upside down on the ground in a sunny spot. Wait a few minutes, and then lift the container slightly and put your hand under it. Can you feel a difference in temperature compared to the air outside the container?

Try this in different areas. Does the air heat up more if you put the container over light-colored or dark-colored ground? Does it make a difference if there are plants or no plants under the container?

If you have a thermometer and want to try an experiment with increasing the amount of greenhouse gases present in your container, follow the instructions on this page. We’re curious to see what you find out!

Other Resources:

Share Your Experience:

Tell us what you learn about our climate this week! We’d love to see your photos, too. Please send them to takeitoutside@peecnature.org or share them on Facebook or Instagram with the hashtag #peectakeitoutside.

Join us tomorrow to learn more about our climate!

Exploring Our Atmosphere

Our atmosphere makes it possible for humans to live on Earth and experience beautiful views like this one, which was taken at Valle de los Posos. (Photo by Craig Martin)

By Christy Wall, Atmospheric Scientist and McCurdy Charter School Sixth Grade Teacher

The sun makes it possible for us to live on Earth, and radiation from the sun is what delivers heat to Earth. But Mars isn’t that much farther from the Sun than we are. What makes Earth’s climate suitable for life? Our unique atmosphere!

What is an atmosphere? It’s the blanket of air that surrounds a planet. Mars has a much thinner atmosphere than our planet, which is a major factor that makes the Red Planet colder than Earth.

Earth’s unique atmosphere makes the planet suitable for life. Though Mars isn’t that much farther away from the Sun, it has a much thinner atmosphere than our planet. (Photo by NASA/ESA)

Earth’s atmosphere is composed primarily of nitrogen and oxygen. Our atmosphere is critical to holding in heat from the sun and making Earth a place where we can live. Our atmosphere is pretty special. It has different layers, kind of like a cake. The lowest layer contains the oxygen that we breathe. Other layers protect us from UV rays from the sun.

The pressure of our atmosphere allows liquid water to exist on Earth’s surface. Besides being important for life, having liquid water has a big impact on Earth’s climate because liquid water allows us to have clouds. Clouds can reflect radiation from the sun, or act to trap it and keep Earth’s surface warmer. This is why cloudy nights are warmer than clear nights.

While the atmosphere on Earth is primarily composed of oxygen and nitrogen, there are many other chemicals floating around us. Some of these are called “greenhouse gases,” which means that they help keep the planet warm enough for us to live on. Imagine a greenhouse for plants in the winter: the glass traps heat and allows plants to live even when it’s really cold out. Space is about as cold as it gets! Earth’s atmosphere is like the glass in a greenhouse. Gases like water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane, ozone, and nitrous oxide absorb radiation and act a little like a blanket, keeping our planet warm enough for us.

The names of these greenhouse gases probably sound familiar. All of these gases occur naturally in the atmosphere. For example, carbon dioxide can be released by volcanic eruptions. Methane can be released from wetlands. Bacteria in soil can create nitrous oxide. Some of these greenhouse gases are also produced by human activity, like the burning of fossil fuels. When greenhouse gases are produced by people, we call them “anthropogenic.” As more anthropogenic greenhouse gases are released into the atmosphere, more heat is trapped, causing warming overall, which we refer to as “climate change.”

Climate change is a tricky thing to explain. Many people call it “global warming,” but as the amount of these anthropogenic greenhouse gases (especially carbon dioxide and methane) increases in the atmosphere, it’s causing more than just warmer temperatures. The way that moisture moves in the atmosphere is changing, making some areas rainier and others drier.

Many areas, including New Mexico, are seeing fewer nights with temperatures below freezing, which has a big impact on plants. Even if the temperature warms just a little, it means that we may have more rain than snow during the winter. When snow falls in the mountains, it is stored in the snowpack. As the snow melts in the summer, water is released into rivers. If it rains instead of snowing, the water isn’t stored in the snowpack, which means we have less water for irrigation or other uses in the summer.

The good news is that there are things that we can do to mitigate the impacts of climate change. Climate change is caused by an increase of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, so we can help by finding ways to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases we emit, and by finding ways to remove excess greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere.

To reduce emissions, we can do things like reduce waste in our personal and organizational lives. See how PEEC is doing this here. On a more public level, we can advocate for moving to energy sources that do not release carbon into the atmosphere. Los Alamos County Department of Public Utilities has a goal to provide carbon-neutral electricity by 2040.

To remove excess gases in the atmosphere, we can plant and nurture trees and other plants, which use atmospheric carbon dioxide to grow, and we can explore technological solutions to remove excess carbon from the atmosphere.