The Variable Atmosphere

Unlike the few "permanent" gases, categorized as such because their proportions are nearly constant near the earth's surface, the concentrations of the numerous other substances found in the earth's atmosphere are variable. With the exception of water vapor, each one of these variable substances exists in the atmosphere in concentrations far less than one percent by volume. Because these constituents exist in such small amounts, their proportions are often recorded in parts per million (ppm) and parts per billion (ppb) by volume.

The figures in the table below are representative of the average concentrations of many of the variable substances found in our atmosphere. Note that in contrast with the permanent gases, the variable substances include gases as well as particulate matter. The air we breathe is not simply a composite of a few isolated molecules, but rather, a complex mixture of gaseous, liquid, and solid substances.

The Variable Substances
(Near the Earth's Surface)

Substance Chemical
(by volume of dry air)
(parts per million)
Water vapor H2O 0 to 4 -------
Carbon dioxide CO2 0.035 350
Methane CH4 0.00017 1.7
Nitrous oxide N2O 0.00003 0.3
Ozone O3 0.000004 0.04
Particulate matter ------- 0.000001 0.01
Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) ------- 0.00000001 0.0001

Quick Quiz: With the exception of water vapor, most variable gases exist in the atmosphere by less than what percent?

Confused? Have a question? If so, check out the Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) page or send mail to the OS411 tutor ( with your question!
Report technical/content problems here