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Colombo International Nautical and Engineering College

CINEC Maritime Campus Winner of National Quality Award 1999 & 2004 & 2009

Faculty of Maritime Sciences

Atmospheric Pressure
Force exerted by the weight of the air Atmospheric pressure is defined as the force per unit area exerted against a surface by the weight of the air above that surface. In the diagram below, the pressure at point "X" increases as the weight of the air above it increases. The same can be said about decreasing pressure, where the pressure at point "X" decreases if the weight of the air above it also decreases.

Thinking in terms of air molecules, if the number of air molecules above a surface increases, there are more molecules to exert a force on that surface and consequently, the pressure increases. The opposite is also true, where a reduction in the number of air molecules above a surface will result in a decrease in pressure. Atmospheric pressure is measured with an instrument called a "barometer", which is why atmospheric pressure is also referred to as barometric pressure. Meteorologists measure the pressure of the atmosphere in bars (from barometric unit) or more usually millibars (mb). 1 bar = 1000 mb = 10 N/cm2 = 100 kPa The pressure at sea level varies from about 900 - 1100 mb, with a global average of about 1013 mb. Lower pressures are usually associated with rain and strong winds, and higher pressures with fine, dry and calm weather. Changes in pressure bring changes in the weather.

Pressure with Height

pressure decreases with increasing altitude The number of air molecules above a surface changes as the height of the surface above the ground changes. For example, there are fewer air molecules above the 50 kilometer (km) surface than are found above the 12 km surface. Since the number of air molecules above a surface decreases with height, pressure likewise decreases with height.

Most of the atmosphere's molecules are held close to the earth's surface by gravity. Because of this, air pressure decreases rapidly at first, then more slowly at higher levels.

Since more than half of the atmosphere's molecules are located below an altitude of 5.5 km, atmospheric pressure decreases roughly 50% (to around 500 mb) within the lowest 5.5 km. Above 5.5 km, the pressure continues to decrease, but at an increasingly slower rate (to about 1 mb at 50 km).

lines of constant pressure

A line drawn on a weather map connecting points of equal pressure is called an "isobar". Isobars are generated from mean sea-level pressure reports and are given in millibars. Isobars are usually plotted in the metric system of millibars Average sea level pressure is 1013.2 millibars Isobars are shown on maps at 4 millibar intervals

The diagram below depicts a pair of sample isobars. At every point along the top isobar, the pressure is 996 mb while at every point along the bottom isobar, the pressure is 1000 mb. Points above the 1000 mb isobar have a lower pressure and points below that isobar have a higher pressure.

Any point lying in between these two isobars must have a pressure somewhere between 996 mb and 1000 mb. Point A, for example, has a pressure of 998 mb and is therefore located between the 996 mb isobar and the 1000 mb isobar.

Sea-level pressure reports are available every hour, which means that isobar maps are likewise available every hour. The solid blue contours (in the map below) represent isobars and the numbers along selected contours indicate the pressure value of that particular isobar.

Such maps are useful for locating areas of high and low pressure, which correspond to the positions of surface cyclones and anticyclones. A map of isobars is also useful for locating strong pressure gradients, which are identifiable by a tight packing of the isobars. Stronger winds are associated with stronger pressure gradients.

pressure gradient Is the decrease in atmospheric pressure per unit of horizontal distance, shown on a synoptic chart by the spacing of the isobars.

The pressure-gradient force is the primary driving force of wind that results from pressure changes that occur over a given distance, as depicted by the spacing of isobars, lines drawn on maps that connect places of equal air pressure. The spacing of isobars indicates the amount of pressure change occurring over a given distance, expressed as the pressure gradient. Closely spaced isobars indicate a steep pressure gradient and strong winds; widely spaced isobars indicate a weak pressure gradient and light winds. There is also an upward directed, vertical pressure gradient which is usually balanced by gravity in what is referred to as hydrostatic equilibrium. On those occasions when the gravitational force slightly exceeds the vertical pressure-gradient force, slow downward airflow results.

Pressure Gradient Force

--air flows from high pressure to low pressure --wind speed depends on steepness of pressure gradient --isobar spacing shows steepness of pressure gradient

Coriolis Force
Once air has been set in motion by the pressure gradient force, it undergoes an apparent deflection from its path, as seen by an observer on the earth. This apparent deflection is called the "Coriolis force" and is a result of the earth's rotation.

As air moves from high to low pressure in the northern hemisphere, it is deflected to the right by the Coriolis force. In the southern hemisphere, air moving from high to low pressure is deflected to the left by the Coriolis force. The amount of deflection the air makes is directly related to both the speed at which the air is moving and its latitude. Therefore, slowly blowing winds will be deflected only a small amount, while stronger winds will be deflected more. Likewise, winds blowing closer to the poles will be deflected more than winds at the same speed closer to the equator. The Coriolis force is zero right at the equator.