Dr. Universe answers why there is cold air in the mountains

  • Thursday, December 28, 2017 10:00am
  • Life
Dr. Universe answers why there is cold air in the mountains

Dear Dr. Universe: Why is it so cold up in the mountains if heat rises and it’s closer to the sun? – Andrea, 11

Dear Andrea,

You’re right. If we took a trip into the mountains, we would find that it felt a lot colder. It all has to do with our atmosphere. We may not always think about it, but we are basically living in a giant ocean of air.

“It’s a big part of what makes Earth livable,” said my friend Shelley Pressley. She’s an environmental engineer at Washington State University’s Laboratory for Atmospheric Research. “Without gravity and our atmosphere, all the oxygen we breathe would fly out into space.”

Our atmosphere contains small building blocks, or gas molecules, that make up the air we breathe, she said. We can’t always see or feel how much gas there is, but we can measure it. We can calculate the mass of gas, or the number of molecules there are in a certain area.

Air is actually pushing down on us all the time, even if we can’t really feel it.

“Imagine you are standing on Earth’s surface,” Pressley said. “There’s a column of air above your head that stretches up to the top of the atmosphere. The column of air is pushing down on your head. This is pressure.”

“Now, climb the tallest mountain you can find and stand on it,” she adds. “The column of air pushing down on your head is shorter. It has less mass than the column in the first spot.”

The air pressure is greater when you are closer to the level of the ocean’s surface. Here, the building blocks or molecules are pretty squished together. When the gas’ pressure is greater, temperature increases.

Maybe you’ve heard people say the air is thinner up in the mountains, where there is less pressure and the molecules or building blocks are more spread out. When the pressure of a gas decreases, so does temperature.

Pressure is a big part of the answer to the first part of your question. The other part of your question involves the sun. Our sun is about 490 billion feet away from the surface of the Earth.

While a mountain might seem tall, it’s pretty puny in comparison to the distance between Earth and our sun. It actually doesn’t make a huge difference in temperature.

Pressley said that pressure and our sun also have a lot to do with weather. When sunlight travels through the atmosphere, it heats the surface of the planet. When the surface gets warmer, it sends heat back up to air molecules near the surface and warms them up. The molecules of air rise. As they do, they expand and cool.

Somewhere else, air over a mountain that is even colder actually starts to sink. This sinking air gets compressed, squished together, and heats up. This mixing of air is called convection and is at the heart of our weather. This system also keeps the surface of our home planet warm enough to live —from the colder mountains to the warmer beaches around our world.

Sincerely,

Dr. Universe


Talk to us

Please share your story tips by emailing editor@rentonreporter.com.

To share your opinion for publication, submit a letter through our website https://www.rentonreporter.com/submit-letter/. Include your name, address and daytime phone number. (We’ll only publish your name and hometown.) Please keep letters to 300 words or less.

More in Life

A customer buys strawberries from Sidhu Farms at the Renton Farmers Market. Photo: Bailey Jo Josie/Sound Publishing
Renton Farmers Market kicks off the summer in Piazza Park

Opening day brought a big crowd with local produce, live music and zero COVID restrictions.

The Gnome Trail is located across from Rock Creek Elementary School, 25700 Maple Valley Black Diamond Rd SE, Maple Valley. Photos by Bailey Jo Josie/Sound Publishing
Gnome Trail draws visitors to whimsical patch of forest in Maple Valley

There is a small issue of broken gnomes and even instances of intentional vandalism.

Johlesa Orm is a senior at Lindbergh High School and will be honored as part of the 2022 WA State STEM Signing Day, sponsored by Boeing.
Guest column: Using computer science to solve big problems

By Johlesa Orm, For the Renton Reporter

Teaser
World’s longest surviving kidney patient dies

Mercer Island resident Nancy Spaeth went on dialysis at age 18 and received four kidney transplants.

2021 Toyota Corolla XSE
Car review: 2021 Toyota Corolla XSE

By Larry Lark, contributor Hatchbacks are all about versatility and fun. The… Continue reading

2021 Mazda CX-30 Crossover
Car review: 2021 Mazda CX-30 Crossover

By Larry Lark, contributor The Mazda CX-30 Crossover made its North American… Continue reading

2021 Volkswagen Atlas Cross Sport
Car review: 2021 Volkswagen Atlas Cross Sport

By Larry Lark, contributor The Volkswagen Atlas Cross Sport full-size SUV has… Continue reading

2021 Lexus RC 350 F Sport
Car review: 2021 Lexus RC 350 F Sport

By Larry Lark, contributor The 2021 Lexus RC 350 F Sport is… Continue reading

2021 Chevrolet Trailblazer RS
Car review: 2021 Chevy Trailblazer RS

By Larry Lark, contributor Chevy’s 2021 Trailblazer is an entry-level, compact SUV… Continue reading

2022 Telluride Nightfall Edition
Car review: 2022 Kia Telluride

By Larry Lark, contributor Big, bold and boxy, that’s the newly tweaked… Continue reading

2021 Jeep Grand Cherokee L Overland
Car review: 2021 Jeep Grand Cherokee L Overland

By Larry Lark, contributor With almost 30 years and four generations under… Continue reading