This cartoon shows some of the gases in Earth's troposphere. There is more nitrogen (N2) than anything else. There is also a lot of oxygen (O2). The cartoon also shows carbon dioxide (CO2), water vapor (H2O), methane (CH4), sulfur dioxide (SO2), and carbon monoxide (CO).
Click on image for full size
Image courtesy UCAR, modified by Windows to the Universe staff (Randy Russell).

Atmospheric Chemistry of Earth's Troposphere

When you think of chemistry, do you think about mixing colored liquids in test tubes and maybe making an explosion... or at least a nice puff of smoke? Did you know that a lot of chemistry happens in Earth's atmosphere? There are many different kinds of chemicals in the air. Those chemicals often combine with each other in chemical reactions, making new and different chemicals. This is called "atmospheric chemistry".

Earth's atmosphere has different layers. The lowest layer is called the troposphere. We live in the troposphere. This page explains about atmospheric chemistry in the troposphere.

Most of the gas in our atmosphere is nitrogen. About 4/5ths of the air is nitrogen. What about the other 1/5th? Almost all of it is oxygen, the stuff in the air we need to breathe. There are also very small amounts of a bunch of other chemicals.

Have you heard of greenhouse gases? They are kinds of gases that trap the heat from sunlight in our atmosphere. Earth would be very cold if we didn't have any greenhouse gases. Carbon dioxide and methane are two very important greenhouse gases.

Some of the chemicals in the air come from pollution. When we burn coal in a factory or gasoline in our cars, we make air pollution. Coal and oil have sulfur in them. When they burn, they make chemicals called sulfur oxides. These can turn into sulfuric acid when they mix with water droplets in the air. These droplets of acid can fall to the ground as acid rain. Cars and trucks also give off chemicals called nitrogen oxides. Nitrogen oxides combine with other chemicals to make smog. They also help make nitric acid, which is another acid in acid rain.

Nature also does things to change the chemistry of the troposphere. Volcanoes, lightning, and wildfires all add chemicals to the air or change the ones that are already there. Energy from sunlight can make chemical reactions happen, changing one gas into another. Some chemicals move in cycles between the atmosphere, living creatures, and the oceans. The Carbon Cycle and the Nitrogen Cycles are two important cycles that change the chemistry of the atmosphere.

This table (below) describes some of the chemicals in the troposphere, and some of the chemical reactions that happen in the air:

Chemical Formula Role in Tropospheric Chemistry
Carbon dioxide

Carbon dioxide is a kind of greenhouse gas. When we breathe, we take in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide. Plants and some kinds of microbes use carbon dioxide during photosynthesis to make food. Burning fuels also puts carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Carbon monoxide

When things burn, they mostly make carbon dioxide. Sometimes they make carbon monoxide, too. Carbon monoxide is a poisonous gas. Volcanoes and car engines make carbon monoxide.


Hydrocarbons are chemicals made up of hydrogen and carbon atoms. When fuel burns, it puts some hydrocarbons into the air. Hydrocarbons help to make smog, a kind of air pollution.

Methane is a kind of greenhouse gas.
Most of the gas in Earth's atmosphere is nitrogen. About 4/5ths of the air is nitrogen. The nitrogen cycle explains how nitrogen moves around in the environment. When fuel burns hot, like it does in the engine of a car, nitrogen combines with oxygen to make nitrogen oxides.
Nitrogen Oxides
NO & NO2
Nitrogen oxides are a kind of pollution. Burning fuels like gasoline in air makes nitrogen oxides. Most nitrogen oxides come from cars and trucks. They help to make smog. They also mix with water droplets in the air to make nitric acid. Nitric acid is a part of acid rain.
Nitric Acid

Nitric acid is part of acid rain. Nitric acid forms when nitrogen oxides mix with water droplets in the air. Nitrogen oxides are a kind of pollution that comes from the engines of cars and trucks.

Oxygen & Ozone
O2 & O3

About 1/5th of the gas in the atmosphere is oxygen. When you breathe, your body uses the oxygen to keep you alive. Ozone is a special kind of oxygen that has three atoms instead of two.

PAN (Peroxyacytyl nitrate)

PAN is a kind of air pollution. Smog has PAN in it. PAN forms when nitrogen dioxide, oxygen, and Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) get together.

Smog is a mixture of smoke and fog. Photochemical smog is a kind of air pollution. It has nitrogen oxides, ozone, VOCs, and PAN in it.

When a photon of sunlight breaks apart a molecule.

Sulfur Oxides
SO2 & SO3
Sulfur dioxide and sulfur trioxide are types of pollution. People make them when we burn coal and oil. Volcanoes also give off sulfur oxides. Sulfur dioxide mixes with water droplets in the air to make sulfuric acid. Sulfuric acid is in acid rain.
Sulfuric Acid

Sulfuric acid is in acid rain. Sulfuric acid in the air is made when sulfur dioxide gas mixes with water droplets. The sulfur dioxide gas comes from volcanoes and from coal and oil that people burn for fuel.

Last modified February 7, 2006 by Randy Russell.

You might also be interested in:

Traveling Nitrogen Classroom Activity Kit

Check out our online store - minerals, fossils, books, activities, jewelry, and household items!...more


There is more nitrogen gas in the air than any other kind of gas. About 4/5ths of Earth's atmosphere is nitrogen gas! A molecule of nitrogen gas is made up of two nitrogen atoms. There are other molecules...more


Oxygen (O2) is a kind of gas. A lot of the air you breathe is oxygen. That's a good thing, since we need oxygen to stay alive! About 4/5ths of the air in Earth's atmosphere is nitrogen (N2). Almost all...more

Earth's Greenhouse Gases

Even though only a tiny amount of the gases in Earth’s atmosphere are greenhouse gases, they have a huge effect on climate. There are several different types of greenhouse gases. The major ones are carbon...more

Carbon Dioxide - CO2

Carbon dioxide (CO2) is a kind of gas. There isn't that much carbon dioxide in Earth's atmosphere, but it is still very important. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas. That means it helps trap heat coming...more

Methane - CH4

Methane is a kind of gas. There is a small amount of methane in the air you breathe. A methane molecule has carbon and hydrogen atoms in it. Methane is a greenhouse gas. That means it helps make Earth...more

Air Pollution

What do smog, acid rain, carbon monoxide, fossil fuel exhausts, and tropospheric ozone have in common? They are all examples of air pollution. Air pollution is not new. As far back as the 13 th century,...more

Air Pollution Sources

Air pollution comes from many different sources. Natural processes that affect air quality include volcanoes, which produce sulfur, chlorine, and ash particulates. Wildfires produce smoke and carbon monoxide....more

Windows to the Universe, a project of the National Earth Science Teachers Association, is sponsored in part is sponsored in part through grants from federal agencies (NASA and NOAA), and partnerships with affiliated organizations, including the American Geophysical Union, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Earth System Information Partnership, the American Meteorological Society, the National Center for Science Education, and TERC. The American Geophysical Union and the American Geosciences Institute are Windows to the Universe Founding Partners. NESTA welcomes new Institutional Affiliates in support of our ongoing programs, as well as collaborations on new projects. Contact NESTA for more information. NASA ESIP NCSE HHMI AGU AGI AMS NOAA