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The atmosphere of Earth is the layer of gases, commonly known as air, retained by Earth's gravity, surrounding the planet Earth and forming its planetary atmosphere. The atmosphere of Earth protects life on Earth by creating pressure allowing for liquid water to exist on the Earth's surface, absorbing ultraviolet solar radiation, warming the surface through heat retention (greenhouse effect), and reducing temperature extremes between day and night (the diurnal temperature variation).
By volume, dry air contains 78.09% nitrogen, 20.95% oxygen, 0.93% argon, 0.04% carbon dioxide, and small amounts of other gases. Air also contains a variable amount of water vapor, on average around 1% at sea level, and 0.4% over the entire atmosphere. Air composition, temperature, and atmospheric pressure vary with altitude, and air suitable for use in photosynthesis by terrestrial plants and breathing of terrestrial animals is found only in Earth's troposphere and in artificial atmospheres.
Earth's atmosphere has changed much since its formation as primarily a hydrogen atmosphere, and has changed dramatically on several occasions -- for example, the Great Oxidation Event 2.4 billion years ago, greatly increased oxygen in the atmosphere from practically no oxygen to levels closer to present day. Humans have also contributed to significant changes in atmospheric composition through air pollution, especially since industrialisation, leading to rapid environmental change such as ozone depletion and global warming.
The atmosphere has a mass of about 5.15×1018 kg, three quarters of which is within about 11 km (6.8 mi; 36,000 ft) of the surface. The atmosphere becomes thinner and thinner with increasing altitude, with no definite boundary between the atmosphere and outer space. The Kármán line, at 100 km (62 mi), or 1.57% of Earth's radius, is often used as the border between the atmosphere and outer space. Atmospheric effects become noticeable during atmospheric reentry of spacecraft at an altitude of around 120 km (75 mi). Several layers can be distinguished in the atmosphere, based on characteristics such as temperature and composition.
The study of Earth's atmosphere and its processes is called atmospheric science (aerology), and includes multiple subfields, such as climatology and atmospheric physics. Early pioneers in the field include Léon Teisserenc de Bort and Richard Assmann. The study of historic atmosphere is called paleoclimatology.