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Pressure and Density of the Atmosphere

Temperature gradient is the change in temperature with altitude; air pressure changes with altitude and temperature.

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Pressure and Density of the Atmosphere

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.

Water bottle collapsing due to greater air pressure at lower altitudes

This bottle was closed at an altitude of 3,000 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.


  1. Why does air density decrease with increasing 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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Use this resource to answer the questions that follow.

  1. What force creates atmospheric pressure?
  2. Where is atmospheric pressure greatest?
  3. What is pressure? In what units is it expressed?
  4. Why don't we collapse due to air pressure?
  5. Why does the water stay in the glass when the card is on it?
  6. Why couldn't we live without atmospheric pressure?

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

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