Why is it Colder at Higher Elevations?

Posted on October 7, 2008  Comments (8)

John Hunter at Hurricane Ridge in Olympic National Park

I know it is colder at higher elevations (there is snow on the top of mountains when no snow is left on the bottom). When I was hiking this summer in Colorado and it started snowing I thought about why it was colder in higher elevations. My guess was that it was mainly due to lower air pressure and being higher up in the atmosphere where air was cooler than is was closer to sea level.

So I did some research online and the main explanations seem to be that at higher elevations the air pressure is lower (molecules and atoms under less pressure move more slowly which means the temperature is less).

Hot air does rise, but the amount of hot air is minor compared to the existing cold air in the atmosphere. So when hot air rises from the ground it is cooled down before getting far off the earth’s surface. And as it rises the pressure decreases, which cools it down.

Mountain Environments report, United Nations Environment Programme:

Air temperature on average decreases by about 6.5° C for every 1,000 m increase in altitude; in mid latitudes this is equivalent to moving poleward about 800 km. The dry dust-free air at altitude retains little heat energy, leading to marked extremes of temperature between day and night.

Photo of John Hunter at Hurricane Ridge in Olympic National Park.

Related: Why is the air cooler at higher altitudes?Why is the Sky Blue?scientific explanations for what we experienceFlint and Steel: What Causes the Sparks?Mount Rainier National Park PhotosLow air pressure decreases temps at high elevation

How does elevation effect climate? Wendell Bechtold, Meteorologist, Forecaster, National Weather Service

Normally at mid and tropical latitudes, an increase in elevation produces a cooler climate. But in the higher latitudes, that is not always the case. Especially in wintertime, where very cold dense arctic air will pool at lower elevations, while higher elevations will be situated above
the pool of dense air.

Air is mainly heated from below (from the heat from the ground). The Sun provides much of the heat, but not by heating the air directly, but by heating the ground which then radiates heat into the air.

8 Responses to “Why is it Colder at Higher Elevations?”

  1. Fran y Romi
    October 9th, 2008 @ 4:28 pm

    Thanks for the info, it is so interesting for me.
    Bye, Fran

  2. Anonymous
    January 3rd, 2009 @ 11:58 pm

    Pretty interesting .. i always thought of this as a phenomenon linked to the fact that the proximity to the core of the earth produces higher temperatures.. so if you move upward (altitude) by increasing this disntance you will eventually get cooler…

    guess i was wrong ! =)

  3. Curious Cat Science Blog » What is a Molecule?
    August 24th, 2009 @ 4:24 pm

    A molecule is the smallest particle of a compound that has all the chemical properties of that compound. Molecules are made up of two or more atoms, either of the same element or of two or more different elements…

  4. Jane
    April 27th, 2010 @ 5:10 pm

    I was recently researching this for a school paper and I would add another idea. Part of the reason is indeed the change in air pressure. But according to many of the sources I examined, the larger cause is the fact that the sun is a indirect, not a direct, heat source. The higher layers of the atmosphere allow in visible light and infrared radiation being emitted by the Sun, but largely blocks the other, more harmful rays, such as ultraviolet and X-ray radiation, from reaching us. While some of this visible light and infrared radiation that makes it through heats the atmosphere directly, most of it is absorbed by the surface of the earth, including the oceans, and by objects on it. This is then transferred entirely into infrared radiation and the heat energy output is reflected back up into the atmosphere. So, while it appears that the Earth’s major, direct heat source is the Sun, we actually get most of our heat from the surface of the earth. Thus, mountains, which are much further away from their heat source, are colder. See http://education.sdsc.edu/teachertech/downloads/climate_answ.pdf or http://www.srh.weather.gov/jetstream/atmos/ atmos_intro.htm for more information.

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    October 11th, 2012 @ 5:55 am

    The answer isn’t quite as simple as it seems. I found it a struggle to understand the explanation…

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    But, what if your body is trying to cool down?

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    June 27th, 2013 @ 7:45 pm

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  8. jeremy
    June 19th, 2014 @ 9:14 pm

    The lower the elevation the closer you are to earths core which is magma so of course it would be hotter right?

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