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When I was in school, I was taught that we need oxygen to breathe, but it actually constitutes only a small fraction of the atmospheric composition, and that nitrogen constituted the largest fraction of the atmosphere's composition.

This quick Google search mentions oxygen as the most abundant element.

How can this be reconciled?

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  • $\begingroup$ Where does Google say this? en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atmosphere_of_Earth $\endgroup$ Mar 7, 2016 at 14:53
  • $\begingroup$ google.co.uk/… $\endgroup$ Mar 7, 2016 at 14:53
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    $\begingroup$ It isn't strictly speaking Google that says it. Anyways, that page describes Earth's mass, not its atmosphere. $\endgroup$ Mar 7, 2016 at 14:56
  • $\begingroup$ Further, judging by en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abundance_of_elements_in_Earth%27s_crust compared to en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… it looks like the site Google highlights actually refers to the crust, not the entire earth. $\endgroup$ Mar 7, 2016 at 14:59
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    $\begingroup$ Earth's atmosphere is just a tiny part of the Earth as a whole. Your teacher talked about the atmosphere only, where oxygen isn't the most abundant. In the planet as a whole, oxygen dominates by far (or, taken by mass, iron - oxygen is still second, though). Look around you - all of that soil, rock etc. is most likely formed of oxygen. Also, look at the oceans - all that water contains huge amounts of oxygen (1:2 by part, 8:1 by mass). $\endgroup$
    – Luaan
    Mar 9, 2016 at 15:25

2 Answers 2

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Both of them.

The composition of the atmosphere, crust, mantle, core and bulk earth are all notably different.

The atmosphere is composed of ~78% nitrogen and ~21% oxygen, with small amounts of other gases.

enter image description here

The bulk composition of the earth by weight is mostly, iron, oxygen, silicon and magnesium, in that order, with all the other elements making up only about 5% of the earth's weight. Most of the earth's iron is in the core, which is about 85% iron. The rest of the earth is dominated by oxygen and silicon, primarily in the form of silicate minerals, which consist of $\ce{SiO4^{4-}}$ tetrahedra linked in different ways and with different cations filling in the gaps.

enter image description here

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    $\begingroup$ Note that the pie charts are by mass. Different pie charts would result if the elements were expressed in terms of molar fraction. In that sense, oxygen is the most abundant element on the Earth (including the atmosphere), while iron by more than a factor of three. $\endgroup$ Mar 7, 2016 at 20:03
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    $\begingroup$ What does "bulk silicate earth" mean? $\endgroup$
    – naught101
    Mar 8, 2016 at 0:27
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    $\begingroup$ @naught101 crust + mantle $\endgroup$
    – Gimelist
    Mar 8, 2016 at 4:16
  • $\begingroup$ This seems like a good answer, but could you add a source please? That would also make clear if we speak about numbers or mass fractions. $\endgroup$ Oct 18, 2018 at 21:42
  • $\begingroup$ @AtmosphericPrisonEscape See, for instance, Wang et. al Icarus 2018, 299, 460. for mantle, core and bulk. $\endgroup$
    – Kexanone
    Oct 27, 2022 at 8:02
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"How can this be reconciled?" In two words: silicon dioxide :-)

Yes, that's simplistic, but reflects the fact that virtually all the oxygen occurs in chemical combinations with other elements, not as free oxygen. The same is true for other elements in the crust & mantle.

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  • $\begingroup$ Actually, silicon oxide (as quartz or other silica minerals) is only that common in the uppermost part of the crust. There is hardly any silica, if at all, more than a few tens of km deep $\endgroup$
    – Gimelist
    Mar 8, 2016 at 4:15
  • $\begingroup$ Unless you are talking about normative oxide analysis, Michael, instead of quarts and other mineral forms. There is a lot of silicon bonded to oxygen that is counted as silicon dioxide. $\endgroup$
    – haresfur
    Mar 8, 2016 at 5:07
  • $\begingroup$ And also MgO, CaO, Al2O3, FeO and whatever. Singling out SiO2 out of all oxides misses the point. $\endgroup$
    – Gimelist
    Mar 8, 2016 at 7:52
  • $\begingroup$ @Michael: No, it makes a point (though maybe you missed it :-)), which is that virtually all the oxygen is bound up in compounds. Indeed, the only reason there's a significant amount of free oxygen in the atmosphere is photosynthesis. $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Mar 8, 2016 at 22:03
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    $\begingroup$ This is interesting and I'm going to spin off as a new question. $\endgroup$
    – haresfur
    Mar 10, 2016 at 23:13

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