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Atmospheric pressure

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diurnal (daily) rhythm of air pressure in northern Germany (black curve is air pressure)

Atmospheric pressure is the pressure above any area in the Earth's atmosphere caused by the weight of air. Standard atmospheric pressure (atm) is discussed in the relevant section.

Effects on airEdit

Air masses are affected by the general atmospheric pressure within the mass, creating areas of high pressure (anti-cyclones) and low pressure (depressions).

As elevation increases, fewer air molecules are above. Therefore, atmospheric pressure decreases with increasing altitude. The following relationship is a first-order approximation:

where P is the pressure in pascals and h the height in meters. this shows presha at an altitude of 31 km is about 10(5-2) Pa = 1000 Pa, or 1% of that at sea level1.

A column of air, 1 square inch in cross section, measured from sea level to the top of the atmosphere would weigh approximately 14.7 lb. A 1 m2 column of air would weigh about 100 kilonewtons. See density of air.

Standard atmospheric pressureEdit

Standard atmospheric pressure or "the standard atmosphere" (1 atm) is defined as 101.325 kilopascals (kPa). This definition is used for pneumatic fluid power (ISO R554), and in the aerospace (ISO 2533) and petroleum (ISO 5024) industries.

In 1985, IUPAC recommended that standard atmospheric pressure should be 100 000 Pa = 1 bar = 750 Torr. The same definition is used in the compressor and the pneumatic tool industries (ISO 2787). [1] (see also Standard temperature and pressure)

This can also be stated as:


This "standard pressure" is a purely arbitrary representative value for pressure at sea level, and real atmospheric pressures vary from place to place and moment to moment everywhere in the world.

Mean sea level pressure (MSLP or QFF)Edit

Mean sea level pressure (MSLP or QFF) is the pressure at sea level or (when measured at a given elevation on land) the station pressure reduced to sea level assuming an isothermal layer at the station temperature.

This is the pressure normally given in weather reports on radio, television, and newspapers. When barometers in the home are set to match the local weather reports, they measure pressure reduced to sea level, not the actual local atmospheric pressure.

The reduction to sea level means that the normal range of fluctuations in pressure is the same for everyone. The pressures which are considered high pressure or low pressure do not depend on geographical location. This makes isobars on a weather map meaningful and useful tools.

In USAEdit

In the United States, compressed air flow is often measured in "standard cubic feet" per unit of time, where the "standard" means the equivalent quantity of air at standard temperature and pressure. However, this standard atmosphere is defined slightly differently: temperature = 68 °F (20 °C), air density = 0.075 lb/ft³ (1.20 kg/m³), altitude = sea level, and relative humidity = 0%. In the air conditioning industry, the standard is often temperature = 32 °F (0 °C) instead. For natural gas, the petroleum industry uses a standard temperature of 60 °F (15.6 °C).

In aviationEdit

The altimeter setting in aviation, set either QNH or QFE, is another atmospheric pressure reduced to sea level, but the method of making this reduction differs slightly. See altimeter.

  • QNH barometric altimeter setting which will cause the altimeter to read airfield elevation when on the airfield. In ISA temperature conditions the altimeter will read altitude above mean sea level in the vicinity of the airfield
  • QFE barometric altimeter setting which will cause an altimeter to read zero when at the reference datum of a particular airfield (generally a runway threshold). In ISA temperature conditions the altimeter will read height above the datum in the vicinity of the airfield.


Average sea-level pressure is 1013.25 hPa (mbar) or 29.921 inches of mercury (inHg). In aviation weather reports (METAR), QNH is transmitted around the world in millibars or hectopascals, except in the United States and Canada where it is reported in inches (or hundredths of inches) of mercury. (The United States also reports sea level pressure SLP, which is reduced to sea level by a different method, in the remarks section, not an internationally transmitted part of the code, in hectopascals or millibars. In Canada's public weather reports, sea level pressure is reported in kilopascals, while Environment Canada's standard unit of pressure is hectopascal.) In the weather code, three digits are all that is needed, Decimal points and the one or two most significant digits are omitted: 1013.2 mbar or 101.32 kPa is transmitted as 132; 1000.0 mbar or 100.00 kPa is transmitted as 000; 998.7 mbar or 99.87 kPa is transmitted as 987; etc. The highest sea-level pressure on Earth occurs in Siberia, where the Siberian High often attains a sea-level pressure above 1032.0 mbar. The lowest measurable sea-level pressure is found at the centers of hurricanes (typhoons, baguios).

Atmospheric pressure variationEdit


Hurricane Wilma on October 19, 2005 – 88.2 kPa in eye

Atmospheric pressure varies widely on the Earth, and these variations are important in studying weather and climate. See pressure system for the effects of air pressure variations on weather..

Intuitive feeling for atmospheric pressure based on height of waterEdit

Atmospheric pressure is often measured with a mercury barometer, and a height of approximately 760 mm (30 inches) of mercury is often used to teach, make visible, and illustrate (and measure) atmospheric pressure. However, since mercury is not a substance that humans commonly come in contact with, water often provides a more intuitive way to conceptualize the amount of pressure in one atmosphere.

One atmosphere (101.325 kPa or 14.7 lbf/in²) is the amount of pressure that can lift water approximately 10.3 m (33.9 feet). Thus, a diver at a depth 10.3 meters under water in a fresh-water lake experiences a pressure of about 2 atmospheres (1 atm for the air and 1 atm for the water).

See alsoEdit


  1. US Department of Defense Military Standard 810E
  2. Burt, Christopher C., (2004). Extreme Weather, A Guide & Record Book. W. W. Norton & Company ISBN 0393326586
  3. U.S. Standard Atmosphere, 1962, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C., 1962.
  4. U.S. Standard Atmosphere, 1976, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C., 1976.

External linksEdit

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