Stacking up the Atmosphere

In this hands-on activity, participants learn the characteristics of the five layers of the atmosphere and make illustrations to represent them. They roll the drawings and place them in clear plastic cylinders, and then stack the cylinders to make a model column of the atmosphere.

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Betsy Youngman
Jean Pennycook
Louise Huffman
LuAnn Dahlman
ANDRILL- University of Nebraska

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Teaching Tips

Teaching Tips

The visual of equally-sized tennis ball tubes to represent each layer of the atmosphere will not give the correct impression of the differences in the vertical extents of these layers. On page 3 of the full activity is the description of the layers including the elevation of the top and bottom. If you calculate the vertical extent of each layer and then scale the size of one tennis ball tube to the thickness of the tropopause you can determine how many tennis ball tubes you need stacked on each other to represent the vertical extent of each of the other layers. See the numbers below.

Layer top and bottom elevation thickness thickness/thickness of tropopause
Troposphere: 0-10 km 10 km 10 km/10 km = 1
Stratosphere: 10-40 km 30 km 30 km/10 km = 3
Mesosphere: 40-80 km 40 km 40 km/10 km = 4
Thermosphere: 80-500 km 420 km 420 km/10 km = 42
Exosphere: 500-10,000 km 9500 km 9500 km/10 km = 950

Thus to make a scale model you would need 1 tube to represent the troposphere, 3 tubes on top of each other to represent the stratosphere, 4 tubes to represent the mesosphere, 42 tubes to represent the thermosphere, and 950 tubes to represent the exosphere.

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