Why is it That When You Climb a Mountain You Get Colder Even Though You are Getting Closer to the Sun?

From Issue: Discovery 11/1/2004

Questions from Harmony C. Meadows, Durango, CO.


Dear Harmony,

 Although we can’t see it, air is made up of a massive amount of smaller molecules. When these pieces are forced together in a small space, they constantly rub up against each other, causing the small pieces to heat up. When these small pieces are spread out, however, they won’t knock into each other as often, and so they cool down, making the air feel colder. As you travel up a mountain, the air expands, causing those bits of air to not rub against each other, thus making the air cold.

Why doesn’t the Sunheat the air? The Sun does not really heat air by itself very well. A special type of heat (infrared) actually warms the surface of the Earth. This warmth bounces back and the air mixes with it, making the air hot. In the mountains, there is so much wind that the air is moved around constantly, and it doesn’t have enough time to pick up heat. So, the air on a mountain is cooler.

Great question Harmony!



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