Stratosphere

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Atmosphere diagram showing stratosphere. The layers are to scale: from Earth's surface to the top of the stratosphere (50km) is just under 1% of Earth's radius. (click to enlarge)

The stratosphere is the second major layer of Earth's atmosphere, just above the troposphere, and below the mesosphere. It is stratified in temperature, with warmer layers higher up and cooler layers farther down. This is in contrast to the troposphere near the Earth's surface, which is cooler higher up and warmer farther down. The border of the troposphere and stratosphere, the tropopause, is marked by where this inversion begins, which in terms of atmospheric thermodynamics is the equilibrium level. The stratosphere is situated between about 10 km (6 miles) and 50 km (31 miles) altitude above the surface at moderate latitudes, while at the poles it starts at about 8 km (5 miles) altitude.

The stratosphere is layered in temperature because it is heated from above by absorption of ultraviolet radiation from the Sun. Within this layer, temperature increases as altitude increases (see temperature inversion); the top of the stratosphere has a temperature of about 270 K (−3°C or 26.6°F), just slightly below the freezing point of water. This top is called the stratopause, above which temperature again decreases with height. The vertical stratification, with warmer layers above and cooler layers below, makes the stratosphere dynamically stable: there is no regular convection and associated turbulence in this part of the atmosphere. The heating is caused by an ozone layer that absorbs solar ultraviolet radiation, heating the upper layers of the stratosphere. The base of the stratosphere occurs where heating by conduction from above and heating by convection from below (through the troposphere) balance out; hence, the stratosphere begins at lower altitudes near the poles due to the lower ground temperature there.

Commercial airliners typically cruise at an altitude near 10 km in temperate latitudes, in the lower reaches of the stratosphere. They do this to stay above any hard weather. This is to avoid atmospheric turbulence from the convection in the troposphere. Turbulence experienced in the cruise phase of flight is often caused by convective overshoot from the troposphere below. Similarly, most gliders soar on thermal plumes that rise through the troposphere above warm patches of ground; these plumes end at the base of the stratosphere, setting a limit to how high gliders can fly in most parts of the world. (Some gliders do fly higher, using ridge lift from mountain ranges to lift them into the stratosphere.)

The stratosphere is a region of intense interactions among radiative, dynamical, and chemical processes, in which horizontal mixing of gaseous components proceeds much more rapidly than vertical mixing. An interesting feature of stratospheric circulation is the quasi-Biennial Oscillation (QBO) in the tropical latitudes, which is driven by gravity waves that are convectively generated in the troposphere. The QBO induces a secondary circulation that is important for the global stratospheric transport of tracers such as ozone or water vapor.

In northern hemispheric winter, sudden stratospheric warmings can often be observed which are caused by the absorption of Rossby waves in the stratosphere.

See also

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