Meteorology and Weather
Global Warming

Why is it colder at high altitudes?

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2010-10-06 10:29:28

Consider the way a refrigerator works: a gas (refrigerant) is

compressed and it gets hot, this passes through the hot coils at

the back of the fridge to cool down. The cool compressed gas is

then allowed to expand suddenly through a nozzle in the freezer,

and the gas gets very cold, which makes the freezer cold. The gas

then returns to the compressor for re-compression and completes the


Assume you had an insulated floppy balloon of air (as in a gondola

balloon) at sea level at 20 degrees centigrade, at the same

pressure as the surrounding air. You then carry the big floppy

balloon to the top of Everest. The air pressure in the atmosphere

decreases the higher you go up because less air is pushing down on

you the higher you go up. Because the air pressure is lower, and

the air in the balloon expands (it was a very floppy gondola

balloon, and can expand freely). As we saw with the refrigerator,

when a gas expands, it gets cold! Hence the air in the balloon will

be much colder than at sea level, as is all the air around


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