Why Is It Colder at the Top of a Mountain Than It Is at Sea Level?

By: HowStuffWorks.com Contributors  | 
Mount Everest behind Nuptse
Lower pressure at higher altitudes causes the temperature to be colder on top of a mountain than at sea level. Pictured is Mount Everest behind the mountain of Nuptse. Education Images/UIG via Getty Images

You may already know about the relationship between temperature and pressure: When you pressurize air (or any gas), it gets hotter, and when you release the pressure on air, it gets colder. So, a bicycle pump gets hot when you pump up a tire, and a spray paint can or a C02 cartridge gets cold as you release the pressurized gas.

You may also know that air pressure decreases as altitude increases. This table shows the pressure (in pounds per square inch) at different altitudes:


Altitude and Air Pressure
Altitude and air pressure
HowStuffWorks 2018

So, how does elevation affect climate? As air rises, the pressure decreases. It is this lower pressure at higher altitudes that causes the temperature to be colder on top of a mountain than at sea level.


How Air Molecules Affect Temperature

Air molecules play a pivotal role in temperature variation with elevation. When at a low elevation, there are more air molecules compressed together due to the weight of the atmosphere pressing down. As these air molecules are compressed, they generate heat, leading to a temperature increase. Conversely, as elevation rises, air molecules spread apart due to decreased atmospheric pressure, leading to a temperature decrease. When there are fewer molecules in a given space, the air is less capable of absorbing and retaining heat, resulting in cooler temperatures experienced at higher elevations.


The Temperature Decreases With Altitude

The phenomenon of temperature decrease with increasing altitude is a consistent observation, notably in mountainous regions. In general, for every 1,000 feet you ascend, the temperature drops approximately 3.5 to 5 degrees Fahrenheit. This predictable temperature decrease is known as the lapse rate, a crucial concept for meteorologists and climatologists. The lapse rate can vary depending on factors like humidity, time of day, and the overall weather pattern. For example, during the summer in the Pacific Northwest, the Cascade Mountains may experience a different lapse rate compared to mountain ranges in other climates or regions.


How Elevation Affects Temperature and Precipitation

Elevation not only influences temperature but also precipitation. As warm air rises, it expands and cools in the process due to lower air pressure at higher elevations. When this cooler, moist air reaches the dew point, moisture condenses into clouds and precipitation. This process, known as the orographic effect, explains why mountain ranges are often associated with higher precipitation levels. On one side of a mountain, the air pushes upwards, cooling and releasing moisture as rain or snow; on the other side, colder air sinking creates a rain shadow, often resulting in a dry valley.


Climate Variations in Mountainous Regions

Mountainous regions are often characterized by a tapestry of microclimates due to the significant temperature and precipitation changes experienced over short distances. This variability results in diverse vegetation types and wildlife habitats. In addition, climate model simulations have shown that these regions are warming faster than the global average due to climate change. The complexity of climates within mountain ranges requires detailed study and monitoring to understand the environmental and ecological impacts of global warming in these areas.


Additional Factors Influencing Temperature

While elevation is a primary driver, other factors also influence temperature changes. The equator's proximity, for instance, leads to warmer temperatures due to the angle at which sunlight hits Earth's surface. Vegetation, clouds, and the presence of snow and ice also play roles in modulating the temperature at different elevations. All these factors collectively contribute to the intricate climate tapestry we observe on our planet.

By understanding the fundamental principles outlined here, one can better grasp the dynamic interplay between elevation, temperature, and climate, offering insights into the broader implications for ecology and environmental science in the face of ongoing global changes.


This article was updated in conjunction with AI technology, then fact-checked and edited by a HowStuffWorks editor.

Air Pressure FAQ

What is air pressure?
Air pressure can best be described as the weight of the air molecules that press down on the Earth. The air pressure lowers as altitude increases. Therefore, the highest air pressure is at sea level where the density of the air molecules is the greatest.
What is the normal atmospheric pressure?
The standard or close-to-average atmospheric pressure at sea level is about 14.7 pounds per square inch. However, the atmospheric pressure does not always equal this standard value due to changes in the weather.
What is considered high air pressure?
A barometer reading of 30 inches (Hg) is considered normal air pressure. Similarly, a reading of 30.70 inches is considered high air pressure. If the air pressure falls below 27.30 inches, it’s considered low.
How does air pressure affect us?
Air pressure is the weight of the atmosphere around us. It affects us in different ways. For example, low air pressure puts more pressure on the joints and can exacerbate pain. It’s also a common culprit of headaches and migraines, a drop in blood pressure and increased sinus pressure.
What kind of weather is associated with low air pressure?
Low air pressure is associated with high winds, precipitation, cloudy weather, and tropical storms.