The Mass of the Atmosphere: A Constraint on Global Analyses Journal Article uri icon



  • Abstract; The total mass of the atmosphere varies mainly from changes in water vapor loading; the former is proportional to global mean surface pressure and the water vapor component is computed directly from specific humidity and precipitable water using the 40-yr European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF) Re-Analyses (ERA-40). Their difference, the mass of the dry atmosphere, is estimated to be constant for the equivalent surface pressure to within 0.01 hPa based on changes in atmospheric composition. Global reanalyses satisfy this constraint for monthly means for 1979–2001 with a standard deviation of 0.065 hPa. New estimates of the total mass of the atmosphere and its dry component, and their corresponding surface pressures, are larger than previous estimates owing to new topography of the earth’s surface that is 5.5 m lower for the global mean. Global mean total surface pressure is 985.50 hPa, 0.9 hPa higher than previous best estimates. The total mean mass of the atmosphere is 5.1480 × 1018 kg with an annual range due to water vapor of 1.2 or 1.5 × 1015 kg depending on whether surface pressure or water vapor data are used; this is somewhat smaller than the previous estimate. The mean mass of water vapor is estimated as 1.27 × 1016 kg and the dry air mass as 5.1352 ± 0.0003 × 1018 kg. The water vapor contribution varies with an annual cycle of 0.29-hPa, a maximum in July of 2.62 hPa, and a minimum in December of 2.33 hPa, although the total global surface pressure has a slightly smaller range. During the 1982/83 and 1997/98 El Niño events, water vapor amounts and thus total mass increased by about 0.1 hPa in surface pressure or 0.5 × 1015 kg for several months. Some evidence exists for slight decreases following the Mount Pinatubo eruption in 1991 and also for upward trends associated with increasing global mean temperatures, but uncertainties due to the changing observing system compromise the evidence.; The physical constraint of conservation of dry air mass is violated in the reanalyses with increasing magnitude prior to the assimilation of satellite data in both ERA-40 and the National Centers for Environmental Prediction–National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCEP–NCAR) reanalyses. The problem areas are shown to occur especially over the Southern Oceans. Substantial spurious changes are also found in surface pressures due to water vapor, especially in the Tropics and subtropics prior to 1979.

publication date

  • March 15, 2005

has restriction

  • green

Date in CU Experts

  • June 2, 2021 11:48 AM

Full Author List

  • Trenberth KE; Smith L

author count

  • 2

Other Profiles

International Standard Serial Number (ISSN)

  • 0894-8755

Electronic International Standard Serial Number (EISSN)

  • 1520-0442

Additional Document Info

start page

  • 864

end page

  • 875


  • 18


  • 6