The atoms and molecules that make up the various layers of the atmosphere are constantly moving in random directions. Despite their tiny size, when they strike a surface, they exert a force on that surface in what we observe as pressure.
Each molecule is too small to feel and only exerts a tiny bit of force. However, when we sum the total forces from the large number of molecules that strike a surface each moment, then the total observed pressure can be considerable.
Air pressure can be increased or decreased in one of two ways. First, simply adding molecules to a container will increase the pressure because a larger number of molecules will increase the number of collisions with the container's boundary. This is observed as an increase in pressure.
A good example of this is adding or subtracting air in an automobile tire. By adding air, the number of molecules increases, as does the total number of the collisions with the tire's inner boundary. The increased number of collisions increases the pressure and forces the tire to expand in size.
The second way of changing air pressure is by the addition or subtraction of heat. Adding heat to a container can transfer energy to air molecules. Heated molecules move with increased velocity, striking the container's boundary with greater force, which is observed as an increase in pressure.
Learning Lesson: Heavy Air
Since molecules move in all directions, they can even exert air pressure upwards as they smash into object from underneath. In the atmosphere, air pressure can be exerted in all directions.
In the International Space Station, the density of the air is maintained so that it is similar to the density at the Earth's surface, 14.7 pounds per square inch.
Learning Lesson: A Pressing Engagement
Learning Lesson: Going with the Flow
Back on Earth, as elevation increases, the number of molecules decreases and the density of air therefore is less, which means there is a decrease in air pressure. In fact, while the atmosphere extends hundreds of miles up, one half of the air molecules in the atmosphere are contained within the first 18,000 feet (5.6 km).
This decrease in pressure with height makes it very hard to compare the air pressure at ground level from one location to another, especially when the elevations of each site differ. Therefore, to give meaning to the pressure values observed at each station, we convert the station air pressures reading to a value with a common denominator.
The common denominator we use is the sea-level elevation. At observation stations around the world, the air pressure reading, regardless of the observation station elevation, is converted to a value that would be observed if that instrument were located at sea level.
The two most common units in the United States to measure the pressure are "Inches of Mercury" and "Millibars". Inches of mercury refers to the height of a column of mercury measured in hundredths of inches. This is what you will usually hear from the NOAA Weather Radio or from your favorite weather or news source. At sea level, standard air pressure is 29.92 inches of mercury.
Millibars comes from the original term for pressure: "bar". Bar is from the Greek "báros", meaning weight. A millibar is 1/1000th of a bar and is approximately equal to 1000 dynes (one dyne is the amount of force it takes to accelerate an object with a mass of one gram at the rate of one centimeter per second squared). Millibar values used in meteorology range from about 100 to 1050. At sea level, standard air pressure in millibars is 1013.2. Weather maps showing the pressure at the surface are drawn using millibars.
Although the changes are usually too slow to observe directly, air pressure is almost always changing. This change in pressure is caused by changes in air density, and air density is related to temperature.
Warm air is less dense than cooler air because the gas molecules in warm air have a greater velocity and are farther apart than in cooler air. So, while the average altitude of the 500 millibar level is around 18,000 feet (5,600 meters) the actual elevation will be higher in warm air than in cold air.
Learning Lesson: Crunch Time
The most basic change in pressure is the twice daily rise and fall due to the heat from the sun. Each day, the pressure is at its lowest around 4 a.m./p.m., and at its highest around 10 a.m./p.m. The magnitude of the daily cycle is greatest near the equator, decreasing toward the poles.
On top of the daily fluctuations are the larger pressure changes as a result of the migrating weather systems. These weather systems are identified by the blue H's and red L's seen on weather maps.
Learning Lesson: Measure the Pressure: The "Wet" Barometer
How are changes in weather related to changes in pressure?
From his vantage point in England in 1848, Rev. Dr. Brewer wrote in his A Guide to the Scientific Knowledge of Things Familiar the following about the relation of pressure to weather:
The FALL of the barometer (decreasing pressure)
- In very hot weather, the fall of the barometer denotes thunder. Otherwise, the sudden falling of the barometer denotes high wind.
- In frosty weather, the fall of the barometer denotes thaw.
- If wet weather happens soon after the fall of the barometer, expect but little of it.
- In wet weather if the barometer falls expect much wet.
- In fair weather, if the barometer falls much and remains low, expect much wet in a few days, and probably wind.
- The barometer sinks lowest of all for wind and rain together; next to that wind, (except it be an east or north-east wind).
The RISE of the barometer (increasing pressure)
- In winter, the rise of the barometer presages frost.
- In frosty weather, the rise of the barometer presages snow.
- If fair weather happens soon after the rise of the barometer, expect but little of it.
- In wet weather, if the mercury rises high and remains so, expect continued fine weather in a day or two.
- In wet weather, if the mercury rises suddenly very high, fine weather will not last long.
- The barometer rises highest of all for north and east winds; for all other winds it sinks.
The barometer UNSETTLED (unsteady pressure)
- If the motion of the mercury be unsettled, expect unsettled weather.
- If it stands at "MUCH RAIN" and rises to "CHANGEABLE" expect fair weather of short continuance.
- If it stands at "FAIR" and falls to "CHANGEABLE", expect foul weather.
- Its motion upwards, indicates the approach of fine weather; its motion downwards, indicates the approach of foul weather.
These pressure observations hold true for many other locations as well, but not all of them. Storms that occur in England, located near the end of the Gulf Stream, bring large pressure changes. In the United States, the largest pressure changes associated with storms will generally occur in Alaska and the northern half of the continental U.S. In the tropics, except for tropical cyclones, there is very little day-to-day pressure change, and none of the rules apply.
Learning Lesson: Measure the Pressure II: The "Dry" Barometer