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Global Atmospheric Change

Author(s): Nancy Moreno, Barbara Tharp and Judith Dresden

Energy and the Atmosphere

The sun is the source of Earth’s energy. Every second, approximately five million tons of matter within this relatively small star are converted into energy, which is sent outward into space. We feel part of this energy as heat and see another part as light. Heat and light that we can detect, however, represent only a small portion of the radiation emitted by the sun.

Radiation travels in waves, similar in some ways to waves on the surface of a lake. The distance between the peaks, or crests, of two successive waves is known as the wavelength. The longest wavelengths— between 1 and 1,000 meters—correspond to television and radio signals. The shortest wavelengths, those of cosmic rays, are only 0.000,000,000,000,01 meters long!

Radiation traveling toward Earth passes through a thin layer of gases called the atmosphere. Without this protective layer, life on Earth would be impossible. Earth’s atmosphere consists primarily of nitrogen and oxygen, along with other argon, carbon dioxide and water vapor. The atmosphere keeps the planet warmer than it would be otherwise; provides oxygen, moisture and carbon dioxide; and prevents most harmful radiation from reaching the surface.

Green plants and algae (related plant-like organisms that usually grow in water) are able to absorb energy from the sun and use it to combine carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere with water to make energy-rich molecules, such as sugars and carbohydrates. Green plants and their products form the base of almost all food webs on Earth. They also are the source of our most common fuels.

Fuels such as wood, coal, oil and natural gas all are composed of matter originally produced by plants and other organisms. Each holds energy, originally trapped during photosynthesis, in the chemical bonds of carbon-containing molecules. When these substances are burned, they release heat energy that can be used for many purposes.

Our use of fossil fuels has grown dramatically since the 1800s. During the Industrial Revolution, coal was used to power steam engines in mines, factories, locomotives and ships. Later, it was used to generate electrical power. The discovery of large deposits of petroleum led to widespread use of fuels for transportation, heating and production of electricity. When fossil fuels are burned, carbon-containing molecules combine rapidly with oxygen. This chemical reaction releases energy in the form of heat. It also releases CO2 into the air. Many other chemical substances also are produced by the burning or incomplete burning of fossil fuels.


Funded by the following grant(s)

National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, NIH

National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, NIH

My Health My World: National Dissemination
Grant Number: 5R25ES009259
The Environment as a Context for Opportunities in Schools
Grant Number: 5R25ES010698, R25ES06932


Houston Endowment Inc.

Foundations for the Future: Capitalizing on Technology to Promote Equity, Access and Quality in Elementary Science Education