Razor Thin: A New Perspective on Earth’s Atmosphere
Razor Thin: A New Perspective on Earth’s Atmosphere
Earth is the only known planet that sustains life. Its atmosphere provides us with oxygen, protects us from the Sun’s radiation, and creates the barometric pressure needed so water stays liquid on our planet.
But while Earth’s atmosphere stretches for about 10,000 km (6,200 miles) above the planet’s surface, only a thin layer is actually habitable.
This graphic, inspired by Andrew Winter, shows just how small Earth’s “habitable zone” is, using the state of Florida as a point of reference.
Earth’s Like an Onion: It Has Layers
Our planet’s atmosphere is made up of a unique cocktail of gases—roughly 78% nitrogen and 21% oxygen, with trace amounts of water, argon, carbon dioxide, and other gases.
It’s separated into five different layers:
- Exosphere: The uppermost layer of our atmosphere that melds into outer space.
- Thermosphere: Begins at around 80 km (50 miles) above sea level and extends to approximately 600 km (372 miles), reaching temperatures as high as 2,000°C (3,600°F).
- Mesosphere: Around 30 km (19 miles) in range, meteors burn as they pass through this layer, creating “shooting stars.”
- Stratosphere: Home to the ozone layer, which is responsible for absorbing a majority of the sun’s radiation.
- Troposphere: The closest layer to ground. It stretches about 7–15 kilometers (5–10 miles) from the surface.
The troposphere makes up approximately 75-80% of the atmosphere’s mass, as it’s where most of the dust, ash, and water vapor are stored. But only a part of this layer is suitable for human life—in fact, the atmosphere’s habitable zone is so small, several mountain ranges extend beyond it.
Reaching Into Earth’s Atmosphere: Extremely High Altitudes
Elevations above 5,500 meters (18,000 ft) are considered extremely high altitude and require special equipment and/or acclimatization in order to survive. Even then, those who choose to venture to extreme heights run the risk of getting altitude sickness.
When it comes to the world’s tallest mountain ranges, the Himalayas are the highest. At their peak, Mount Everest, the Himalayas reach 8,848 m (29,000 ft) above sea level.
|Mountain range||Highest mountain||Height||Countries|
|Himalayas||Mount Everest||8,848 m||Nepal, China|
|Hindu Kush||Tirich Mir||7,708 m||Pakistan|
|Kongur Shan||Kongur Tagh||7,649 m||China|
|Daxue Mountains||Mount Gongga||7,556 m||China|
|Pamir Mountains||Ismoil Somoni Peak||7,495 m||Tajikistan|
|Kakshaal Too||Jengish Chokusu||7,439 m||China, Kyrgyzstan|
|Nyenchen Tanglha Mountains||Gyala Peri||7,294 m||China|
|Kunlun Mountains||Chakragil||6,760 m||China|
|Cordillera de la Ramada||Mercedario||6,720 m||Argentina|
|Tian Shan||Xuelian Feng||6,627 m||China|
|Hindu Raj||Buni Zom||6,542 m||Pakistan|
|Cordillera Occidental||Chimborazo||6,263 m||Ecuador|
|Alaska Range||Denali||6,191 m||USA|
|Saint Elias Mountains||Mount Logan||5,959 m||Canada|
|Eastern Rift mountains||Mount Kilimanjaro||5,895 m||Tanzania|
|Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta||Pico Cristóbal Colón||5,700 m||Colombia|
|Caucasus Mountains||Mount Elbrus||5,642 m||Russia|
|Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt||Pico de Orizaba||5,636 m||Mexico|
|Alborz||Mount Damavand||5,610 m||Iran|
|Yun Range||Jade Dragon Snow Mountain||5,596 m||China|
|Bogda Shan||Bogda Peak||5,445 m||China|
|Cordillera Oriental||Ritacuba Blanco||5,410 m||Colombia|
|Armenian Highlands||Mount Ararat||5,137 m||Turkey|
|Rwenzori Mountains||Mount Stanley||5,109 m||Congo, Uganda|
Despite the dangers of extreme altitude, hundreds of mountaineers attempt to climb Mount Everest each year. On Everest, the region above 8,000 m (26,000 feet) is referred to as the “death zone,” and climbers have to bring bottled oxygen on their trek in order to survive.
Life Beyond Earth
Earth is the only known planet with an atmosphere we can survive in. And even on Earth, certain areas are considered dead zones.
But there may be other life forms out in the galaxy that we haven’t discovered. Recent research in The Astrophysical Journal predicts there are at least 36 intelligent civilizations throughout the galaxy today.
So life may very well exist beyond Earth. It just might look a bit different than we’re used to.
Comparing Population Pyramids Around the World
Population pyramids can show a country’s demographic advantages and challenges at a glance. See how different parts of the world stack up.
Understanding and Comparing Population Pyramids
Demographic data can reveal all kinds of insights about a population, from the country’s fertility and mortality rates to how certain events and policies have shaped the makeup of a population.
Population pyramids are one of the best ways to visualize population data, and comparing the pyramids of various countries and regions side-by-side can reveal unexpected insights and differences between groups.
This graphic uses population data from the United Nations to compare the demographics of some select nations and regions of the world, showcasing how much age distributions can vary.
Three Types of Population Pyramids
Although population pyramids can come in all shapes and sizes, most generally fall into three distinct categories:
- Expansive Pyramids: Recognized by their traditional “pyramid-like” shape with a broad base and narrow top, expansive pyramids reflect a population with a high birth rate along with a high mortality rate which is most common in developing countries.
- Constrictive Pyramids: With a narrow base and thicker middle and top sections of the pyramid, constrictive pyramids often occur in developed economies whose populations have low birth rates and long life expectancies.
- Stationary Pyramids: These pyramids showcase an evenly distributed population across age groups, often found in newly-developed countries which have stable birth and mortality rates.
Each population pyramid is essentially a visual snapshot of a nation’s current demographic breakdown, shaped by fluctuating birth and mortality rates as well as changes to immigration and social policies.
Understanding the inherent risks associated with different pyramid types can help give insight into the challenges these populations face.
The Risks of Different Population Pyramid Types
Each type of population pyramid structure has unique challenges and advantages often characterized by the country or region’s current stage of economic development.
Populations with expansive pyramids, such as the one representing the continent of Africa, have the advantage of a larger youth and working-aged population, however this advantage can be rendered null if job growth, education, and health care aren’t prioritized.
Countries with constrictive pyramids like Japan face the challenge of supporting their outsized aging population with a diminishing working-aged population. While immigration and increasing birth rates can help in both the short and long term, due to the working population being outnumbered, countries with constrictive pyramids must find ways to increase their productivity to avoid potential declines in economic growth.
China and India’s Demographics Compared
After the world’s population reached eight billion people last year, 2023 brought a new population milestone as India overtook China as the world’s most populous country.
When you compare the two nations’ population pyramids, you can see how India’s population has a strong base of young and working-aged people compared to China’s more constrictive population pyramid that also features a higher median age.
This demographic difference is largely shaped by China’s one-child policy which since 2021 was loosened to be a three-child policy. As a result, China’s total fertility rate is around 1.2 today, in contrast to India’s total fertility rate of 2.0.
While India is set to ride the productivity boom of its large working-age population, the country will have to ensure it can keep its population pyramid stable as the majority of the population ages and total fertility rates continue to decline.
|Interested in learning more about the various factors that affect demographics?
VC+ Members get an exclusive look comparing the G7 and BRICS nations, how war shapes population pyramids, and immigration’s role in demographics.
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