Energy and Matter in the Atmosphere

ALMOST ALL NATURAL SYSTEMS on Earth derive their energy from the Sun, but not all areas receive the same amount of sunlight. Instead, the amount of energy reaching Earth’s surface varies from region to region and from time to time. The interaction of energy with the Earth’s atmosphere and surface determine the climate, weather, and habitability of an area.

Sunlight warms the land and oceans, which in turn warm our atmosphere, making some regions, such as this spectacular desert in Namibia, warmer than others.

What type of energy is in sunlight, and does all of the Sun’s energy make it to Earth’s surface?

Namibia, Africa

The Sun rises and sets each day, except in some polar places where the Sun shines 24 hours a day during the summer. In other places, on the opposite pole of the planet, there is total darkness during the same 24 hours.

What causes variations in the number of daylight hours, both from place to place and from season to season?


Many regions have seasons, changing from the warm days of summer to the cold, snowy times of winter.

What causes the change from season to season, and do all areas experience summer at the same time?

Sapporo, Japan

Tropical areas like Indonesia do not have a distinct summer and winter but may have a rainy season and a dry season.

Why do some regions experience summer and winter but others do not?

Banda Island, Indonesia

Antarctica, during its winter, has a dramatic thinning of the overlying ozone layer in the atmosphere, shown here in purple.

What is ozone, what causes this thinning, and why is there so much global concern about this phenomenon when ozone makes up less than 0.001% of all the gas in the atmosphere?

Ancient people, such as the builders of Stonehenge 4,000 years ago, used changes in the position of the Sun over time to schedule important activities, such as the planting of crops.

What causes the seasons, and why do temperatures change from season to seasons?

Stonehenge, Wiltshire, England

Clouds, as in the thunderstorm above, consist of small drops of water and ice crystals. The water to make the drops and crystals evaporated from the surface using energy from the Sun.

How much energy is needed to cause evaporation, and where does that energy ultimately go?

West-Central IL

Astronauts on the NASA Apollo Mission took this famous picture of “Earthrise” over the Moon.

Where does the light coming from the Earth in the photograph originate, and does the loss of this light affect Earth’s overall energy balance?

Earth and Moon