This is confusing to me:

Since pressure increases with temperature (I don't know why), how can air density decrease with temperature. In a hot day then pressure would increase and air density decrease? How is that possible?

@casey @steve V. @StallSpin

The point is this: FAA writtten says: The altimeter will indicate lower altitude than actually flown in a temp warmer than standard. I understand that this way: this an example

1) Indicated Altitude: 12.000ft True Altitude: 12.000ft Temperature: -9 Celsius (STD)

Then suddenly the air temperature changes from -9 to +20 (Example) and in a couple of minutes we have:

Indicated Altitude: 12.000ft True Altitude: 14.000ft (In warmer than stantard, pressure increases so the aneroid waffers in the altimeter will contract indicating lower altitude (lets say it indicated 10.000), then the pilot will climb "back" to 12.000 but in reality (true altitude) he is climbing to 14.000.

Am I getting this right?

2) Now another thing, temperature decreases with altitude, so aneroid waffers are expanded with altitude.

Does the aneroid waffers mesure density or pressure?

  • 5
    $\begingroup$ Pressure will increase with temperature in a closed environment. If you seal air in a container and heat it the pressure will go up. The atmosphere is not a sealed container, when you heat air it will expand as it is seeking equilibrium. When air expands it decreases in pressure. $\endgroup$
    – GdD
    Commented Apr 3, 2014 at 9:07
  • $\begingroup$ You might also be correlating that with altitude changes, where both the temperature and pressure lowers, which isn't necessarily the case in other situations. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 3, 2014 at 9:29
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @GdD if you heat a parcel of air it will initially have the same pressure as its surroundings but its density will decrease. This parcel with reduced density is now buoyant and will rise, and as it rises it will expand and cool adiabatically as it seeks equilibrium and cease rising when it is no longer buoyant. The parcel expands because of decreasing atmospheric pressure with height (not the other way around). $\endgroup$
    – casey
    Commented Apr 3, 2014 at 14:05

3 Answers 3


The atmosphere approximates an ideal gas, and as such you can relate pressure and density through the ideal gas equation. The form we use in meteorology uses mass density and is given by:


where $P$ is pressure in units of Pa, $\rho$ is density in units of kg m-3, $R$ is the gas constant for dry air (287 J kg-1 K-1) and $T$ is temperature in Kelvin. This assumes a dry atmosphere and humidity will decrease density for a given pressure. Consideration for water vapor is usually brought in by changing temperature into virtual temperature $T_V$ where $T_V=T(1+0.61q)$ and $q$ is the mixing ratio of water vapor (units $kg~ kg^{-1}$).

Pressure increases with temperature because the particles have more kinetic energy (which is proportional to $T$). Imagine a box full of bouncing balls, if these balls start moving faster the balls will hit the walls of the box harder, imparting more force on the box. Pressure is merely force per area, so if the force increases but the box stays the same size, the pressure has increased.

Air density can decrease with temperature if pressure is also decreasing. If pressure is constant, this cannot happen (they would be inversely related). Any time you specify a relation between any two of pressure, density or temperature you must hold the third constant or specify its behavior.

For example, hot air rises, but why then is it cold on top of a mountain. The answer is that hot air is less dense than the cold air surrounding it for a constant pressure, and being less dense it rises. With a mountain, the pressure is decreasing, and we likewise find in the atmosphere that temperature decreases with decreasing pressure.

On a hot day what tends to happen is that the surface, which is being warmed by the sun, heats the lowest level of the atmosphere, reducing its density (it is at the same pressure as its surroundings and its T rises). This will eventually drive convection and mix this warmer air vertically. Given enough time, this will reduce the mass in the column of air and therefore reduce the pressure at the surface. These are called "heat lows" and you can see them forming in the desert areas and they play roles in sea breeze formation and the monsoons.

To address the expanded question:

The point in the FAA written is best understood by forgetting that we fly at constant altitudes -- we don't. In level flight we fly on constant pressure surfaces which we then translate to an altitude. In any given column of atmosphere, if it is warmer than standard a given pressure surface will be higher and when colder than standard the pressure surface will be lower.

To illustrate, let's consider you are flying at 3000 ft or roughly 900 mb. Everywhere on this pressure surface will indicate 3000 ft on our altimeter for its current setting. If we go somewhere hot, this pressure surface rises, and so we climb (though we think we are level) with this pressure surface but because the pressure has not changed, we still indicate 3000 ft. However, we are higher than 3000 ft in reality.

This follows into your next question. Aneroid wafers detect pressure changes and your altimeter displays an altitude not corrected for temperature. This is why your true altitude can vary with temperature for a constant indicated altitude. When you correct the altitude for temperature we call this "density altitude".

So back to my example above, your are flying along at 900 mb and indicating 3000 ft, and heading into warmer air. The pressure surface starts to gently rise and as it does you are not yet following that rise and your altimeter will indicate a descent. In true level flight you will begin to fly into higher pressure in this case as the 900 mb surface rises above you and the aneroid wafer in your altimeter will indicate a lower altitude and a descent. You correct this and climb back up to the 900 mb pressure level so that your altimeter will once again indicate 3000', all the while actually gently climbing on this pressure surface. You won't really be cognizant of this while flying however, and will just minimize vertical speed and maintain altitude blissfully unaware that you are really flying on a sloping constant pressure surface.

To better illustrate this, consider the following figure: enter image description here

In this figure the reds signify a warmer than average column of air and the blues a cooler then average column. The whitish area in the middle is a column at average temperatures. The black solid lines are isobars (lines of constant pressure). The dashed black line is a true altitude above the surface. Finally, the bold black line is the pressure level that corresponds to the true altitude of the dashed line at ISA conditions.

What you should notice is that the pressure levels in the warm column are spaced further apart because the air is less dense and more of it is needed to produce the same pressure (as pressure is just the weight of all the air above it). Likewise in the cool column the pressure levels are spaced closer together because the air is more dense than standard.

To tie this into the discussions above, consider yourself in the standard column (white background) at the true altitude above ground represented by the dashed line. Your altimeter does not sense this true altitude but instead senses the pressure outside of the airplane. This will be roughly calibrated to your true altitude (uncorrected for temperature) but using the local altimeter setting. Now as you fly either to the left or to the right and maintain a constant indicated altitude, you will track along the bold line, as this is the pressure that corresponds to your true altitude at standard temps. As you fly toward a colder column you will in reality descend, and you will climb as you fly into the warmer column.

  • $\begingroup$ Thank you. Very interesting. One last question: Does pressure affect airplanes performance (temp increase pressure increases)? $\endgroup$
    – camilogv
    Commented Apr 3, 2014 at 5:25
  • $\begingroup$ Aircraft performance is greatly affected by air pressure, measured by density altitude. The higher the density altitude (the lower the pressure) the less performance you get. It can make an enormous difference which is why you should always do your performance calculations as part of your pre-flight. $\endgroup$
    – GdD
    Commented Apr 3, 2014 at 9:04
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ It is important to state, that when it's hot, the pressure surfaces will be further apart and when it's cold they will be closer together. Because the pressure is caused by weight of the air above and it takes thicker layer of less dense warmer air to have the same weight. The insidious outcome is that you set the altimeter to match true altitude at ground level, but higher it will still differ due to the temperature. $\endgroup$
    – Jan Hudec
    Commented Apr 3, 2014 at 19:05
  • $\begingroup$ Oh, and density altitude is a density. $\endgroup$
    – Jan Hudec
    Commented Apr 3, 2014 at 19:06
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Now Im confused: Pressure increases with temp. Aircraft performance is affected by pressure. Aircraft performance decrease in warmer than standard. How can an aircraft have a greter performance with a lower pressure? $\endgroup$
    – camilogv
    Commented Apr 4, 2014 at 17:54

A big thing to remember is that $Density=\frac{Mass}{Volume}$. It is unrelated to pressure, and pressure is unrelated to density.

Pressure generally increases with temperature only in a gas with a constant volume. This is because you are adding more energy to the system, causing the molecules to become more exited. To put simply, they bounce around harder and exert more energy on each other and the walls of their container. We call that pressure.

If there were no container, an increase in temperature would cause the molecules to fly apart. Now there are less molecules per unit of volume, so the density is lower.

Now in aviation and meteorology when we talk about atmospheric pressure, that is slightly different, and is less related to atmospheric density. High and low pressure systems are more affected by relative upward and downward motion of huge air masses than by immediate local temperature, as a contained gas would be.


Pressure, density and temperature are related (approximately) through the ideal gas equation. In the general form it is


Where $P$ is pressure, $V$ is volume, $n$ is amount, $T$ is temperature and $R$ is ideal gas constant. If you have an enclosed container filled with air, volume ($V$) and amount ($n$) are the same, so pressure increases proportionally to temperature.

In free atmosphere, however, the pressure is determined by the weight of the air above and thus mostly fixed, so by heating the air it increases volume instead.

To get to density, we divide the equation by volume and arrive at:

$$P=\rho RT$$

Where $\rho$ is the density (and handwave the switch from amount to mass, hiding the gas-specific conversion factor in the gas constant). The outside pressure is constant, so the density actually decreases as temperature increases.

Practical effect of this is that since engine power depends on amount of air it can draw in the fixed volume of the cylinders performance is worse when it's warmer.

Now it remains to be explained what governs the open air pressure. The pressure at any given point is caused by the weight of the air above it. Because from the above at constant temperature the density is proportional to pressure, the full equation is differential.

$$\Delta P \sim \rho\Delta h$$

In words the change of pressure is equal to difference in height times density.

The pressure at ground level is affected by weather systems in complex ways. But since colder air is denser, it means that when it's cold the pressure will decrease faster with altitude than when it's hot. Now the altimeter really measures pressure and it only has adjustment for sea-level pressure, but not for temperature. So when you set your altimeter on the ground and climb 1000 feet, you'll be more than 1000 feet above ground when it's hot because the pressure decreases slowly and less than 1000 feet above ground when it's cold. Some procedures even have minimal temperature because of this.


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