The lowest layer of the atmosphere is called the troposphere. It ranges in thickness from 8km at the poles to 16km over the equator. The troposphere is bounded above by the tropopause, a boundary marked by stable temperatures. Above the troposphere is the stratosphere. Although variations do occur, temperature usually declines with increasing altitude in the troposphere. Hill walkers know that it will be several degrees cooler on the top of a mountain than in the valley below.
The troposphere is denser than the layers of the atmosphere above it (because of the weight compressing it), and it contains up to 75% of the mass of the atmosphere. It is primarily composed of nitrogen (78%) and oxygen (21%) with only small concentrations of other trace gases. Nearly all atmospheric water vapour or moisture is found in the troposphere.
The troposphere is the layer where most of the world's weather takes place. Since temperature decreases with altitude in the troposphere, warm air near the surface of the Earth can readily rise, being less dense than the colder air above it. In fact air molecules can travel to the top of the troposphere and back down again in a just a few days. Such vertical movement or convection of air generates clouds and ultimately rain from the moisture within the air, and gives rise to much of the weather which we experience. The troposphere is capped by the tropopause, a region of stable temperature. Air temperature then begins to rise in the stratosphere. Such a temperature increase prevents much air convection beyond the tropopause, and consequently most weather phenomena, including towering cumulonimbus thunderclouds, are confined to the troposphere.
Sometimes the temperature does not decrease with height in the troposphere, but increases. Such a situation is known as a temperature inversion. Temperature inversions limit or prevent the vertical mixing of air. Such atmospheric stability can lead to air pollution episodes with air pollutants emitted at ground level becoming trapped underneath the temperature inversion.