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9.3: Pressure and Density of the Atmosphere

Difficulty Level: At Grade Created by: CK-12
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Have your ears ever popped?

If your ears have ever "popped," you have experienced a change in air pressure. Ears "pop" because the air pressure is different on the inside and the outside.

Pressure and Density

The atmosphere has different properties at different elevations above sea level, or altitudes.


The air density (the number of molecules in a given volume) decreases with increasing altitude. This is why people who climb tall mountains, such as Mt. Everest, have to set up camp at different elevations to let their bodies get used to the decreased air density (Figure below).

Why does air density decrease with altitude? Gravity pulls the gas molecules towards Earth’s center. The pull of gravity is stronger closer to the center, at sea level. Air is denser at sea level, where the gravitational pull is greater.


Gases at sea level are also compressed by the weight of the atmosphere above them. The force of the air weighing down over a unit of area is known as its atmospheric pressure, or air pressure. Why are we not crushed? The molecules inside our bodies are pushing outward to compensate. Air pressure is felt from all directions, not just from above.

This bottle was closed at an altitude of 2,000 meters where air pressure is lower. When it was brought down to sea level, the higher air pressure caused the bottle to collapse.

At higher altitudes the atmospheric pressure is lower and the air is less dense than at lower altitudes. That's what makes your ears pop when you change altitude. Gas molecules are found inside and outside your ears. When you change altitude quickly, like when an airplane is descending, your inner ear keeps the density of molecules at the original altitude. Eventually the air molecules inside your ear suddenly move through a small tube in your ear to equalize the pressure. This sudden rush of air is felt as a popping sensation.


  • Air density and pressure decrease with increasing altitude.
  • Ears pop as air pressure inside and outside the ear equalizes.
  • Gravity pulls more air molecules toward the center of the planet.


Use this resource to answer the questions that follow.


1. What is pressure?

2. What does air have?

3. Where does the atmosphere end?

4. What is air pressure?

5. What is the air pressure in Key West, Florida?

6. Explain the relationship between air pressure and altitude.


1. Why does air density decrease with altitude?

2. Temperature also decreases with altitude. How does that relate to the change in air density?

3. Why are we not crushed by the weight of the atmosphere on our shoulders?

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air pressure The force of air pressing on a given area.
altitude Distance above sea level.

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Difficulty Level:
At Grade
Date Created:
Feb 24, 2012
Last Modified:
Aug 07, 2016
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