When you see the horizon, you might assume that it’s one flat surface. However, this isn’t actually the case. The horizon is composed of several layers that stack on top of each other, though they are not clearly visible to your eyes, which only catch a glimpse of the surface with its reds and blues and greens. When you look at the horizon, you’re actually seeing five layers of the earth at once: the first three layers—the earth’s crust, mantle, and core—are hidden from sight by clouds, fog, or distance. 

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What are Sky & Atmosphere Layers?

The sky seems to be just that—one complete, continuous dome over our heads. But in reality, it’s made up of multiple overlapping layers that are constantly in flux and can affect our vision. Understanding these layers is key to understanding how they affect things like light pollution and star visibility. So let’s break down these five layers: The atmosphere, troposphere, stratosphere, mesosphere and thermosphere. We’ll also look at what makes each layer unique and how they impact our vision while stargazing.


How do sky & atmosphere layers appear?

The sky appears blue for two reasons: scattering and refraction. Scattering occurs when light bounces off air molecules in Earth’s atmosphere (see diagram). Light scatters more in some directions than others, depending on how close to a direct path between your eye and an object it is. Blue light travels a shorter distance through our atmosphere compared to red light, so much of the blue reaches your eyes (that is why on an overcast day you see everything as a shade of gray). This is known as Rayleigh scattering. On a clear day, where there are no clouds or haze to scatter sunlight, you can also see more clearly because most short-wavelength blue and violet light rays have been scattered out of our line-of-sight by air molecules and dust particles.


What are sunsets, glows and crepuscular rays?

If you’ve ever looked up at a sunset and felt as though there was something extra going on, or if you’ve ever seen a ring of light around your shadow in certain conditions, you’re not imagining things: These beautiful phenomena are called crepuscular rays. Crepuscular comes from Latin meaning of twilight, and describes rays that occur during times when there is only partial sunlight. They can be divided into two groups: Sunbeams— those that project through gaps in clouds —and glows—the ones made visible by atmospheric particles. Both types create captivating natural light displays that have inspired generations to reach for their cameras.


Why does the sky appear layered?

When you look up into a clear blue sky, you’re seeing more than just one layer. There are actually several different layers that create what’s known as a skyline. The number and order in which they appear can vary depending on weather conditions, light pollution, time of day and season. The most visible layers include


How can you identify sky and atmosphere layer cloud types?

First, you should be familiar with atmospheric conditions for determining weather. Specifically, you should have a good grasp on what causes different types of clouds to form and how to identify different cloud types by their shape and appearance. Once you’ve gotten that down, then it’s time to learn how to identify sky layer cloud types. That’s where all those acronyms come in handy: First off, clouds usually take on letters at altitudes that start with about 1,000 meters (3,281 feet) above sea level.


How can you recognize atmospheric effects?

Some atmospheric effects such as halos, rainbows, or glories are easy to see; others are more subtle. In order to spot atmospheric effects, you’ll need to know where to look and be aware of some basic optical principles. Let’s start with some examples. Imagine a hot sunny day with lots of blue sky and no clouds in sight. The light we receive from that clear sky has taken a direct path (the zenith) and has not been scattered by air molecules before it reaches our eyes. Since light doesn’t experience any scattering, there is nothing for us to see when we look directly at that clear blue sky.


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