Meteorology and Weather
Global Warming

Why is it colder at high altitudes?

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Answered 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 cycle.

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 it.

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