Why is it Colder at Higher Elevations?

Posted on October 7, 2008  Comments (10)

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.

10 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 ! =)

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  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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  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?

  9. gary bucher
    December 17th, 2015 @ 9:33 pm

    The common answer is that temperature has to do with air pressure. That answer is wrong. the air inside your tires is the same as the air outside. The only time it is different is when air pressure is changing – an aerosol can cools down when the contents are leaving, and the pressure in a tire increases as the air is entering and being compressed. So it is a change in air pressure that causes a change in temperature.

    But at any given elevations, as much air is going up as is going down so the change in air pressure can not be the cause.

    The correct answer is greenhouse gasses. There are less greenhouse gasses at higher elevations. Greenhouse gasses such as CO2 absorb heat and then emit it in all directions, making the area around them warmer. There are less greenhouse gasses at higher altitudes (the lack of CO2 is what causes the tree line) so there is less heat absorbed and emitted at higher altitudes so the temperature is lower.

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