Understanding air density and its effects
By Jack Williams, USATODAY.com
In simple terms, density is the mass of anything – including air – divided by the volume it occupies.
In the metric system, which scientists use, we usually measure density in terms of kilograms per cubic meter.
The air’s density depends on its temperature, its pressure and how much water vapor is in the air. We’ll talk about dry air first, which means we’ll be concerned only with temperature and pressure.
In addition to a basic discussion of air density, we will also describe the effects of lower air density – such as caused by going to high altitudes – on humans, how humidity affects air density – you might be surprised – and the affects of air density of aircraft, baseballs, and even racing cars.
The molecules of nitrogen, oxygen and other gases that make up air are moving around at incredible speeds, colliding with each other and all other objects. The higher the temperature, the faster the molecules are moving. As the air is heated, the molecules speed up, which means they push harder against their surroundings.
If the air is in a balloon, heating it will expand the balloon, cooling it will cause the balloon to shrink as the molecules slow down. If the heated air is surrounded by nothing but air, it will push the surrounding air aside. As a result, the amount of air in a particular “box” decreases when the air is heated if the air is free to escape from the box. In the free atmosphere, the air’s density decreases as the air is heated.
Pressure has the opposite effect on air density.
Increasing the pressure increases the density. Think of what happens when you press down the handle of a bicycle pump. The air is compressed. The density increases as pressure increases.
Altitude and weather systems can change the air’s pressure. As you go higher, the air’s pressure decreases from around 1,000 millibars at sea level to 500 millibars at around 18,000 feet. At 100,000 feet above sea level the air’s pressure is only about 10 millibars. Weather systems that bring higher or lower air pressure also affect the air’s density, but not nearly as much as altitude.
We see that the air’s density is lowest at a high elevation on a hot day when the atmospheric pressure is low, say in Denver when a storm is moving in on a hot day. The air’s density is highest at low elevations when the pressure is high and the temperature is low, such as on a sunny but extremely cold, winter’s day in Alaska. (Related: Understanding air pressure)
Effects of lower density on humans
If you go high enough, either by climbing a mountain or going up in an airplane that does not have a pressurized cabin, you will begin feeling the effects of lower air pressure and density.
As air pressure decreases oxygen continues to account for about 21% of the gasses in the air as it does at sea level. But, there is less oxygen because there is less of all of the air’s gasses. For instance, by the time you go to 12,000 feet the air’s pressure is about 40% lower than at sea level. This means that with each breath you are getting about 40% less oxygen than at the lower altitude.
These effects aren’t felt in airliners because the cabins are pressurized to keep the air density inside about the same as it would be about 6,000 or 7,000 feet above sea level.
The links below have more information about the effects of lower air density:
Princeton U.: High Altitude: Acclimatization and Illnesses
WebMD: Altitude sickness
High-Altitude Medicine Guide
Humidity and air density
Most people who haven’t studied physics or chemistry find it hard to believe that humid air is lighter, or less dense, than dry air. How can the air become lighter if we add water vapor to it?
Scientists have known this for a long time. The first was Isaac Newton, who stated that humid air is less dense than dry air in 1717 in his book, Optics. But, other scientists didn’t generally understand this until later in that century.
To see why humid air is less dense than dry air, we need to turn to one of the laws of nature the Italian physicist Amadeo Avogadro discovered in the early 1800s. In simple terms, he found that a fixed volume of gas, say one cubic meter, at the same temperature and pressure, would always have the same number of molecules no matter what gas is in the container. Most beginning chemistry books explain how this works.
Imagine a cubic foot of perfectly dry air. It contains about 78% nitrogen molecules, which each have a molecular weight of 28 (2 atoms with atomic weight 14) . Another 21% of the air is oxygen, with each molecule having a molecular weight of 32 (2 stoms with atomic weight 16). The final one percent is a mixture of other gases, which we won’t worry about.
Molecules are free to move in and out of our cubic foot of air. What Avogadro discovered leads us to conclude that if we added water vapor molecules to our cubic foot of air, some of the nitrogen and oxygen molecules would leave — remember, the total number of molecules in our cubic foot of air stays the same.
The water molecules, which replace nitrogen or oxygen, have a molecular weight of 18. (One oxygen atom with atomic weight of 16, and two hudrogen atoms each with atomic weight of 1). This is lighter than both nitrogen and oxygen. In other words, replacing nitrogen and oxygen with water vapor decreases the weight of the air in the cubic foot; that is, it’s density decreases.
Wait a minute, you might say, “I know water’s heavier than air.” True, liquid water is heavier, or more dense, than air. But, the water that makes the air humid isn’t liquid. It’s water vapor, which is a gas that is lighter than nitrogen or oxygen. (Related: Understanding water in the atmosphere).
Compared to the differences made by temperature and air pressure, humidity has a small effect on the air’s density. But, humid air is lighter than dry air at the same temperature and pressure.
Effects of air density on airplanes, baseballs, race cars
More dense, or “heavier” air will slow down objects moving through it more because the object has to, in effect, shove aside more or heavier molecules.
Such air resistance is called “drag,” which increases with air density. Baseball players have found that home runs travel farther in the less dense air in high-altitude Denver than in ball parks at lower elevations. The reduced drag slows the ball down at a slower rate, which means it travels farther. (Related: Why baseballs fly farther at high altitudes).
Cool, dense air slows a race car, but some race cars gain from dense air. Cars designed from the wheels up for racing are really like upside down airplane wings that the air pushes down on the track, increasing their grip going around curves. Denser air pushes then down harder. (Related: Auto racers’ winning equations include weather)
Aircraft pilots don’t do as well as baseball players when the air’s density decreases. Lower air density penalizes pilots in three ways: The lifting force on an airplane’s wings or helicopter’s rotor decreases, the power produced by the engine decreases, and the thrust of a propeller, rotor or jet engine decreases. These performance losses more than offset the reduced drag on the aircraft in less dense air.
Pilots use charts or calculators to find out how temperature and air pressure at a particular time and place will affect the air’s density and therefore aircraft performance. In general, these calculations don’t take humidity into account since its affects are so much less than the others. When the air’s density is low, airplanes need longer runways to take off and land and they don’t climb as quickly as when the air’s density is high.
Air density also affects the performance of automobiles, with lower density decreasing performance in the same way it decreases the performance of aircraft engines.
Turbochargers or superchargers are ways of increasing the density of the air going into an engine. The give autos more power on the ground and they allow aircraft to fly higher into thinner air than they would otherwise.
Pilots use “density altitude” to relate air density to aircraft performance. For more about density altitude, you can read an article I did for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association’s Flight Training