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Airglow in the Earth atmosphere: basic characteristics and excitation mechanisms

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The Earth’s middle and upper atmosphere is a region exhibiting non-thermal emissions of electromagnetic radiation generally known as airglow. Airglow is a ubiquitous phenomenon and comprises a large number of atomic and molecular emissions in the ultraviolet, the visible and the near-infrared spectral regions. The main purpose of this article is to provide an overview of the basic characteristics of the airglow, the most important airglow emissions occurring in the terrestrial atmosphere—with a focus on nighttime or nightglow emissions—as well as the current scientific understanding of their excitation mechanisms.

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  1. Note that the spectral dependence of thermal emissions, e.g., by the liquid or solid parts of the Earth’s surface are well described by Planck’s law. Thermal emissions by atmospheric gases are an exception in this respect, because these emissions can only occur at frequencies, where transitions between different vibrational-rotational levels exist.

  2. The unit of length 1 Ångström = 1 Å = 0.1 nm is named after him.

  3. Neglecting for simplicity the fact that the atmosphere may become opaque, limiting the direct photolytic formation of \(A^*\) at lower altitudes.


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We are indebted to the European Space Agency (ESA) for providing SCIAMACHY Level 1b data. SCIAMACHY is jointly funded by Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium. Work on the oxygen airglow at Ernst-Moritz-Arndt-University of Greifswald is in part funded by Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG) through Grant SA 1351/6-1. Work on the Na nightglow retrievals is in part funded by ESA (project MesosphEO) and DFG (Grant SA 1351/8-1). Work on the OH nightglow is funded by BMBF (Bundesministerium für Bildung und Forschung) through ROMIC (Role of the Middle Atmosphere in Climate) project OHCycle.

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Correspondence to Christian von Savigny.

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Savigny, C.v. Airglow in the Earth atmosphere: basic characteristics and excitation mechanisms. ChemTexts 3, 14 (2017).

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