Razor Thin: A New Perspective on Earth's Atmosphere
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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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Automotive

The Most Fuel Efficient Cars From 1975 to Today

This infographic lists the most fuel efficient cars over the past 46 years, including the current leader for 2023.

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The Most Fuel Efficient Cars From 1975 to Today

When shopping for a new car, what is the most important factor you look for? According to Statista, it’s not design, quality, or even safety—it’s fuel efficiency.

Because of this, automakers are always looking for clever ways to improve gas mileage in their cars. Beating the competition by even the slimmest of margins can give valuable bragging rights within a segment.

In this infographic, we’ve used data from the EPA’s 2022 Automotive Trends Report to list off the most fuel efficient cars from 1975 to today.

Editor’s note: This is from a U.S. government agency, so the data shown skews towards cars sold in North America.

Data Overview

All of the information in the above infographic is listed in the table below. Data was only available in 5-year increments up until 2005, after which it switches to annual.

Model YearMakeModelReal World Fuel Economy (mpg)Engine Type
1975HondaCivic28.3Gas
1980VWRabbit40.3Diesel
1985ChevroletSprint49.6Gas
1990GeoMetro53.4Gas
1995HondaCivic47.3Gas
2000HondaInsight57.4Hybrid
2005HondaInsight53.3Hybrid
2006HondaInsight53Hybrid
2007ToyotaPrius46.2Hybrid
2008ToyotaPrius46.2Hybrid
2009ToyotaPrius46.2Hybrid
2010HondaFCX60.2FCEV
2011BMWActive E100.6EV
2012Mitsubishii-MiEV109EV
2013ToyotaiQ EV117EV
2014BMWi3121.3EV
2015BMWi3121.3EV
2016BMWi3121.3EV
2017HyundaiIoniq Electric132.6EV
2018HyundaiIoniq Electric132.6EV
2019HyundaiIoniq Electric132.6EV
2020Tesla3138.6EV
2021Tesla3139.1EV

From this dataset, we can identify three distinct approaches to maximizing fuel efficiency.

Downsizing

Prior to 2000, the best way for automakers to achieve good fuel efficiency was by downsizing. Making cars smaller (lighter) meant they could also be fitted with very small engines.

For example, the 1985 Chevrolet Sprint was rated at 49.6 MPG, but had a sluggish 0-60 time of 15 seconds.

Hybrids

The 2000s saw the introduction of mass-market hybrid vehicles like the Honda Insight and Toyota Prius. By including a small battery to support the combustion engine, automakers could achieve good MPGs without sacrificing so heavily on size.

While the Insight achieved better fuel economy than the Prius, it was the latter that became synonymous with the term “hybrid”. This was largely due to the Prius’ more practical 4-door design.

The following table compares annual U.S. sales figures for both models. Insight sales have fluctuated drastically because Honda has produced the model in several short spans (1999-2006, 2009-2014, 2018-2022).

YearInsight SalesPrius Sales
2005666107,155
2006722106,971
20073181,221
2008-158,884
200920,572150,831
201020,962140,928
201115,549136,464
20126,619236,655
20134,802234,228
20143,965207,372
20151,458184,794
201667136,629
20173108,661
201812,51387,590
201923,68669,718
202015,93243,525
202118,68559,010
20227,62833,352

Source: goodcarbadcar.net

The Prius may have dominated the hybrid market for a long time, but it too has run into troubles. Sales have been declining since 2014, even setting historic lows in recent years.

There are several reasons behind this trend, with one being a wider availability of hybrid models from other brands. We also can’t ignore the release of the Tesla Model 3, which began shipping to customers in 2017.

Electric Vehicles

We’re currently in the middle of a historic transition to electric vehicles. However, because EVs do not use fuel, the EPA had to develop a new system called MPGe (miles per gallon of gasoline-equivalent).

This new metric gives us the ability to compare the efficiency of EVs with traditional gas-powered cars. An underlying assumption of MPGe is that 33.7 kilowatt-hours (kWh) of electricity is comparable to the energy content of a gallon of fuel.

The most fuel efficient car you can buy today is the 2023 Lucid Air, which achieves 140 MPGe. Close behind it is the 2023 Tesla Model 3 RWD, which is rated at 132 MPGe.

Check out this page to see the EPA’s top 10 most efficient vehicles for 2023.

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