Weather and the Ocean of Air

By William Holmes Wenstrom | Go to book overview

Chapter II
HEIGHTS UNEXPLORED -- THE UPPER ATMOSPHERE

Above the Stratosphere -- Sky-Reflected Sound -- Lights of the
Outer Air -- Probing the Ionosphere -- The General Picture

SOME of the atmosphere's profoundest mysteries are far above any possible ascent of man-carrying balloons or propeller- driven airplanes -- beyond reach, even, of the twenty-five-mile sounding balloon. In the upper stratosphere there are levels warmed by the action of sun rays on ozone. Beyond the stratosphere, in the ionosphere, there are levels where solar radiation separates innumerable free ions and electrons out of the extremely rarefied air. Some traces of our earth's atmosphere, becoming ever more and more tenuous with increasing distance, probably extend out to cosmic depths of two thousand miles.

Our present knowledge of the upper stratosphere and the ionosphere beyond is mostly indirect -- painstakingly gleaned, that is, from such intangible phenomena as sound reflection, light reflection, radio reflection, semi-cosmic clouds, meteors, polar lights, and so on. Or, to put it plainly, our present picture of the upper atmosphere is largely limned with guesswork; and subject to constant correction as Doctor X announces a new and inexplicable observation, as Doctor Y propounds a new and scarcely intelligible theory, or as Doctor Z bobs up to confound Doctor Y. This state of affairs is likely to continue until the sounding rocket at last carries recording instruments, or possibly human observers, above the lower stratosphere into black depths beyond the blue.

Nevertheless, innumerable passive observations, as well as

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