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Razor Thin: A New Perspective on Earth’s Atmosphere

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Earth's Atmosphere

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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 rangeHighest mountainHeightCountries
HimalayasMount Everest8,848 mNepal, China
KarakoramK28,611 mPakistan
Hindu KushTirich Mir7,708 mPakistan
Kongur ShanKongur Tagh7,649 mChina
Daxue MountainsMount Gongga7,556 mChina
Pamir MountainsIsmoil Somoni Peak7,495 mTajikistan
Kakshaal TooJengish Chokusu7,439 mChina, Kyrgyzstan
Nyenchen Tanglha MountainsGyala Peri7,294 mChina
AndesAconcagua6,960 mArgentina
Kunlun MountainsChakragil6,760 mChina
Cordillera de la RamadaMercedario6,720 mArgentina
Tian ShanXuelian Feng6,627 mChina
Hindu RajBuni Zom6,542 mPakistan
Cordillera OccidentalChimborazo6,263 mEcuador
Alaska RangeDenali6,191 mUSA
Saint Elias MountainsMount Logan5,959 mCanada
Eastern Rift mountainsMount Kilimanjaro5,895 mTanzania
Sierra Nevada de Santa MartaPico Cristóbal Colón5,700 mColombia
Caucasus MountainsMount Elbrus5,642 mRussia
Trans-Mexican Volcanic BeltPico de Orizaba5,636 mMexico
AlborzMount Damavand5,610 mIran
Yun RangeJade Dragon Snow Mountain5,596 mChina
Bogda ShanBogda Peak5,445 mChina
Cordillera OrientalRitacuba Blanco5,410 mColombia
Armenian HighlandsMount Ararat5,137 mTurkey
Rwenzori MountainsMount Stanley5,109 mCongo, 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.

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Maps

Map: Where Are America’s Largest Landfills?

According to the EPA, the U.S. produced 292 million tons of solid waste in 2018, of which 150 million headed to some of the largest landfills in the country.

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Map: Where Are America’s Largest Landfills?

This was originally posted on our Voronoi app. Download the app for free on Apple or Android and discover incredible data-driven charts from a variety of trusted sources.

We map out America’s largest landfills, based on their total capacity (measured in millions of tons) for solid waste. Data for this graphic is sourced from Statista and is current up to 2023.

According to the EPA, the U.S. produced 292 million tons of solid waste in 2018. Of that, about 150 million tons headed to the country’s landfills. It would take more than 600 of the largest cargo ships (by dead weight tonnage) to move this much material at once.

Ranked: America’s Largest Landfills

Opened in 1993 and located 25 minutes from Las Vegas, Apex Landfill is believed to be one of the world’s largest landfills by both area and volume.

It spans 1,900 acres, or roughly the size of 1,400 football fields. Given its vast capacity, the landfill is expected to be able to accept waste for over 250 years.

Here are the top 10 largest landfills in the country.

RankU.S. LandfillStateCapacity (Million Tons)
1Apex RegionalNevada995
2ECDC EnvironmentalUtah482
3Denver Arapahoe Disposal SiteColorado396
4Columbia RidgeOregon393
5Lockwood RegionalNevada346
6OkeechobeeFlorida242
7Butterfield StationArizona226
8Roosevelt Regional MSWWashington219
9Wasatch RegionalUtah203
10Hillsborough CountyFlorida203

In a 2021 PBS interview, a spokesperson for Apex Landfill reported that the facility captured and treated enough landfill gas to power nearly 11,000 homes in Southern Nevada.

In fact, landfills can create electricity through a process called landfill gas (LFG) recovery. When organic waste decomposes, it produces methane gas which can be captured and purified to create fuel for generators.

As it happens, methane gas from landfills is the third-largest source of human-related carbon emissions, equivalent to 24 million gas passenger vehicles driven for one year. Its capture and treatment is a significant opportunity to combat emissions.

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