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Curious Question about Atmospheric Pressure.

  1. Oct 3, 2011 #1
    I am new here and I have a question about pressure. My idea about atmospheric pressure is that it is a pressure caused by the force directed downward due to the weight of the atmosphere. If that is the case, does it mean that we doesn't feel any pressure horizontally? Please correct me if I am wrong with how I understand this. Thanks!

    The important thing is not to stop questioning. - Albert Einstein
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  3. Oct 4, 2011 #2
    Imagine pushing vertically on an inflated balloon. You will see that it bulges out on all sides, and pretty much everywhere it can....not just vertically.

    So yes, it is the weight of the atmosphere that causes pressure, but it doesn't just work vertically. It works in all directions, even up.
  4. Oct 4, 2011 #3
    Thanks for the reply Lsos. Actually I get your point, but the thing is that it only works for confined fluids as stated by Pascal's principle. So you are saying that we can think of our atmosphere as a confined fluid? Or is there other explanation on this?
  5. Oct 4, 2011 #4


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    The atmoshpere is confined by the surface of the earth and the force of gravity that pulls it towards the surface of the earth.
  6. Oct 4, 2011 #5
    Thanks for clearing up rcgldr :smile:
  7. Oct 4, 2011 #6


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    Any region of the atmosphere is 'confined' by the regions around it, which exert a pressure inwards on it - whether you talk of the ground, the air on top or columns of air around it. Because the Earth is a rough spheroid, you don't need 'walls' around any particular piece. This is analogous to the tension in the envelope of a balloon, which isn't attached'' to anything but itself. The balloon stays up as long as the envelope is intact.
  8. Oct 4, 2011 #7
    Atmospheric pressure is the pressure exerted on any exposed surface by the impact of air molecules upon that surface. It is the simple product of the number of impacts per square meter per second and the mean impulse per impact. In still air, that pressure is essentially the same in all directions.

    Under conditions of equilibrium, it may be shown to approximate the "weight" of the overlying air (the barometric equation).

    When the wind is blowing, that approximation becomes increasingly less accurate.
  9. Oct 4, 2011 #8


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    If the wind is blowing then it must be from a higher pressure region to a lower pressure region. Somewhere, something must be forcing air into that high pressure region and something else must be causing the low pressure region. What you say (as in that other interminable thread) does not consider that. The fact that moving air involves a pressure difference is not relevant if the mean pressure over the region where all the 'weather' is occurring remains the same. Have you a reason why the mean pressure should not the same? You have never stated one, so far. I think you need to look further at the problem rather than just consider the Bernoulli effect in one place.
    One may need to add the weight of all aircraft that happen to be in the air to the total weight of the atmosphere to get a more accurate value for mean pressure. (And all the budgies, too?)
  10. Oct 4, 2011 #9
    There are lots of winds that do not blow from areas of high pressure to areas of low pressure. Virtually all gravity winds blow from areas of low pressure to areas of high pressure. If you think of winds as three-dimensional phenomena (the only rational perspective, in my opinion) then all areas when the air is sinking represent movement from low pressure areas to high pressure areas.

    Let us be careful here to talk about actual pressures (i. e., those measured by a manometer), not the fictional pressures that result when actual pressures are "reduced to sea level".
  11. Oct 4, 2011 #10
    You've lost me here completely. The OP wanted to know why atmospheric pressures were omnidirectional when the "weight of the atmosphere" is unidirectional (down). I think I answered that question.

    How did we get from that to the "mean pressure over the region where all the weather is occurring" (whatever that is) or "why the mean pressure should not [be] the same?" What mean pressure are we talking about?

    A barometer measures the mean air pressure on its sensing surface during the response time of the instrument. This sensing surface is quite small. I know of no instruments that measure pressure over "regions".

    As for atmospheric pressures "staying the same" when weather is occurring, you must be dealing with a different atmosphere than I have been. It is my experience that atmospheric pressures vary widely--both spatially and temporally--when weather is occurring.
  12. Oct 4, 2011 #11


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    I really have no idea how a gas can move for any other reason than pressure difference. Could you explain, please? Can it be pulled or twisted? What is a "gravity wind"?
    By mean pressure I mean the mean of all pressures over a large region. There will be regions of high pressure and regions of low pressure and there will be regions of intermediate pressure. This will vary for different altitudes as well. You seem to be pinning the whole of your argument on the Bernouli effect on a particular body of air which is moving. You seem to be ignoring any air movement above or any pressure differences elsewhere. That is not the whole picture. Behaviour in one specific region does not justify an overall theory. You need to justify it in the wider context.

    You are right to point out the OP but it doesn't make your statements right.

    For the OP:
    Pressure in fluids acts equally in all directions over a small volume. The molecules are moving randomly throughout the volume and have equal motion in all directions. If you explain the pressure in terms of the average change of momentum (as the molecules bounce off the side of a notional box, containing the gas), it is the same in all directions. This applies when the body of gas is stationary. When the gas is moving in a given direction, the pressure may not be the same in all directions (e.g. the blast from a jet engine)
  13. Oct 4, 2011 #12
    There will be a net flow of air from A to B whenever the molecular flux from A to B is greater than the molecular flux from B to A. This is most obvious with pressure differences, but can occur under isobaric conditions as a result of density differences, temperature differences, and humidity differences.

    Gravity winds (also known as katabatic winds) occur as a result of density differences. Glacier winds are prime examples of such winds, and can reach speeds in excess of 100 mph. In essence, cold air flows down slopes, even under isobaric conditions. Other examples of gravity winds include the chinook, the Santa Ana, the Mistral, the Bora, the Foehn, and many others. As a petty example, when you open the refrigerator door, cold air flows out onto your feet. It does this despite there being no significant difference in air pressure.

    Under isobaric conditions, cold air will flow towards warm air. At 1000 hPa, the flux rate for air at -25°C is 3.11 x 10^27 molecules per square meter per second. At +25°C, the flux is 2.84 x 10^27. This flux differential will manifest itself in a flow of air from the colder to the warmer. This is the genesis of the very common daily alternations of "land breezes" and "sea breezes".

    Finally, there will be a net flow of air away from evaporating surfaces and toward condensing surfaces.

    These are all common illustrations of isobaric winds.
  14. Oct 4, 2011 #13
    Which overall theory are you referring to? Kinetic gas theory? Statistical mechanics? If you will specify my overall theory, I shall do my best to justify it.

    As I can recall, I made three statements in my original response to the OP. In the first, I used kinetic gas theory and statistical mechanics to explain why atmospheric pressures were omnidirectional. Surely you don't object to those well-accepted perspectives?

    In my second, I stated that atmospheric pressures approximated the "weight of the overlying atmosphere". This is Atmospheric Science 101. Do you object to this?

    In my third, I stated that that approximation was degraded by increased wind velocities. Is this the one that "sticks in your craw"? That is simple application of the Bernoulli Theorem.
  15. Oct 5, 2011 #14


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    Unless you are suggesting that some sort of anti gravity exists, you cannot produce less mean force on the surface of the Earth than that which corresponds to the weight of the fluid above it. For every area of low pressure there must be some high pressure somewhere else. Certainly this must be true for the long-term time average.

    [response to spambot deleted]

    Klimatos: Of course I was objecting to your use of Bernouli, in isolation and some other meteorological terms (as I already said). I already included simple kinetic theory on one of my posts so I am hardly likely to be questioning that.

    A U tube containing liquids of different densities will only be balanced when the pressures at the bottom (or anywhere else, for that matter) are equal. What causes a flow is pressure, caused by density times column height or modified by mean velocity. It's forces (pressure differences) that make things move - not density or temperature on their own. You are using 'shorthand' terms, used by Meteorologists (and well understood by the best of them, I'm sure), to attempt a Physical explanation. It can't work that way round. In the end, there needs to be an explanation based entirely on Physics.
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  16. Oct 5, 2011 #15


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    No. Air cannot flow through an increasing pressure gradient. Gravity causes the pressure gradient that moves the air in the case of gravity winds: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Katabatic-wind_hg.png

    This should be obvious: An area of cold and dense air over a glacier is more dense and thus has more weight than the air next to glacier. So a higher pressure than air at the same elevation, next to it. A gravity wind is really just the reverse of a thermal.

    You should replace the air in your refrigerator example with water, for higher contrast, and re-examine...
    Last edited: Oct 5, 2011
  17. Oct 5, 2011 #16
    Okay, Russ. Go to your link. Measure the ambient pressure at the tail of the blue arrow (A). Measure the ambient pressure at the head of the arrow (B). You will find that the pressure at A is less than the pressure at B, but that the air flows from A to B.

    Every time there is subsidence in the atmosphere (the downward leg of a Hadley Cell, for instance) you have air moving from an area of lower real pressures (not pressure reduced to sea level) to an area of higher real pressures. All that is required is a difference in density.

    The same thing happens in water. When a mass of cold water sinks it is moving from an area of lower pressure to an area of higher pressure.
  18. Oct 5, 2011 #17


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    You are allowing the fact that a vertical pressure gradient exists in the atmosphere to confuse the issue. The way you characterize it is imprecise and misleading at best. And looking back, you did something similar with a definition of "atmospheric pressure" earlier by making it too generic so that it implies velocity pressure is a component of it. And now that I think about it, I think we had this problem once before in another thread.
    Last edited: Oct 5, 2011
  19. Oct 5, 2011 #18
    1) Sure you can. All you have to do is put the fluid in motion. The atmosphere is almost always in motion.

    2) I am more interested in explaining local weather phenomena than in global averages.

    Addendum) I suspect that I am dealing with laboratory scientists here. The free atmosphere does not always behave as do samples of air in the laboratory. To me, atmospheric physics is primarily an observational science like astronomy, rather than a laboratory science like classical physics.

    I don't understand why both you and russ have such a hard time in believing that cold air will flow down slopes, from measured lower pressure areas (high elevation) to measured higher pressure areas (lower elevation). Cold water flows down underwater slopes in exactly the same manner.

    I'll bet you could even get it to do that in the laboratory.
  20. Oct 5, 2011 #19


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    Klimatos, I understand that cold air flows down a slope. What I object to is your explanation of why. You give an incorrect impression that it flows against a pressure gradient, when in fact the flow is with and caused by a pressure gradient.
  21. Oct 5, 2011 #20


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    I realised that, which is why I have been stressing that it's the MEAN that counts (over the whole of the Earth). Unless you can come up with an explanation that introduces some form of artificial gravity, you can't suddenly have an area of higher pressure without, somewhere, having other area(s) with a lower pressure.
    Your points about a vertical pressure gradient are not relevant either - there is always a vertical variation in pressure where there is gravity.

    Classical Physics does pretty well in describing a whole lot of phenomena that are far too big to get in a Laboratory. Newton's (really ancient) laws give us a very good model for the Solar System, for example.

    What is the location to do with the validity of Physics? Lab experiments are less complex and give you a chance of understanding, later, what goes on in complex situations. You have clearly been bamboozled by the sheer complexity of the weather and by a number of reddish herrings. They have, somehow convinced you that the basics of Physics don't apply. If the sum of all forces on the surface of the Earth doesn't equal the total weight of the material above it then there are either some 'sky hooks' or someone is squashing the atmosphere in a massive balloon.

    I could, perhaps, agree that the ejecta from volcanic action could be steadily increasing the pressure due to the exit velocity. Alternatively, a slow stripping of the atmosphere by external effects could be removing atmosphere and causing a marginal reduction in overall pressure (conservation of momentum in both cases). But neither of those effects appear in your alternative model so we can ignore them for this purpose.
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