What is the Earth's Atmosphere?

Teacher's Notes

See Fact Sheet - Atmospheric Temperature Profile


  • Background information on the layers of the atmosphere;
  • Atmospheric Temperature Profile Transparency Master.

Things to Emphasize

The Earth is surrounded by a thin layer of gases made up of a mixture of molecules. These are mostly molecules of nitrogen, oxygen, argon and carbon dioxide. We call this layer the Earth's atmosphere.

The layers of the Earth's atmosphere are the troposphere, stratosphere, mesosphere, and thermosphere. They can be defined by their atmospheric temperature profile.

Student Activities

  1. Student Reading Selection, What is the Atmosphere?
  2. Follow-up activities to reading selection:
  3. Discussion questions:
    • What keeps the atmosphere from floating off into space?
    • Explain why life could not exist on Earth without the atmosphere.
    • Is Earth the only planet with an atmosphere? Research other planets to compare their atmospheres with that of Earth.
  4. Create a graphic representation of the layers of the Earth's atmosphere. Students may choose one of the suggestions below or design one of their own. Note: as there is some variation in the altitude of the different layers, the graphic representations need not be exact, but should demonstrate correct proportion.



  • graph paper
  • compass
  • pencil
  • coloured markers


  1. Create a scale to represent the altitude of the different layers of the atmosphere.
  2. Draw a circle to represent Earth in the centre of the graph paper.
  3. Mark each layer of the atmosphere with dots according to the chosen scale.
  4. Use a compass to connect the dots.
  5. Label the layers of the atmosphere.
  6. Colour the layers if youwish.

Graph of Earth's atmosphere

Spreadsheet/Circle Graphs


  • computer
  • spreadsheet application
  • printer
  • paper


  1. Open spreadsheet application.
  2. Start a new spreadsheet.
  3. Enter the names of the layers of the atmosphere and corresponding altitudes.
  4. Select the data range.
  5. Make a circle graph.

Suggestion: Experiment with different types of graphs to see which one best represents the data.

Pie chart of Earth's atmosphere

Graduated Cylinder Model


  • graduated cylinder
  • salt coloured with ground chalk or coloured fish tank gravel
  • paper or cardstock for legend


  1. Create a scale to represent the altitude of the different layers of the atmosphere.
  2. Fill the graduated cylinder with chalk-coloured salt using a different colour to represent each layer of the atmosphere.
  3. Create a legend to display with the model.

Graduated cylinder representation of Earth atmosphere