Is the air temperature (at 8km) above the North or South poles colder than the same altitude above the equator? Why?

Ground level air temperature difference between coldest and warmest places on Earth can be >70C. As you get higher, the temperature drops, of course. Does it mean that near Arctic circle air temperature at let's say, 8km altitude still maintains approximately the same difference with the 8km altitude above equator as at the ground level? Or does it even out? Is it perhaps even possible to have air at some altitude significantly warmer than at ground level?


3 Answers 3


In the troposphere, air at altitude is colder than air at ground level. But surprisingly, air at altitude at the poles can be warmer than air at altitude at the equator. From the wiki article on troposphere (I added the bullet points):

The troposphere is heated from below by latent heat, longwave radiation, and sensible heat. Surplus heating and vertical expansion of the troposphere occurs in the tropics.

  • At middle latitudes, tropospheric temperatures decrease from an average of 15 °C (59-degree Fahrenheit) at sea level to about −55 °C (-67-degree Fahrenheit) at the tropopause.
  • At the poles, tropospheric temperature only decreases from an average of 0 °C (32-degree Fahrenheit) at sea level to about −45 °C (-49-degree Fahrenheit) at the tropopause.
  • At the equator, tropospheric temperatures decrease from an average of 20 °C (68-degree Fahrenheit) at sea level to about −70 to −75 °C (-94 to -103-degree Fahrenheit) at the tropopause.

The troposphere is thinner at the poles and thicker at the equator. The average thickness of the tropical troposphere is roughly 7 kilometers greater than the average tropospheric thickness at the poles.

There is quite a bit of variation in the troposphere as a function of place on earth, and much effort has been put into creating a standardised atmosphere that can be used for practical purposes around the world. The ICAO standard atmosphere serves that purpose. It cannot account for local wind conditions and humidity.

enter image description here

I found a graph in an old paper format uni book on the atmosphere, depicting average conditions in two separate places on earth, Berlin and 40° latitude in North America. The graph shows that although the temperature lapse rate is very similar in both cases, there is a difference in temperature at a given height. The arrow gives the temperature difference at 8 km height, also transported to 0 m (less average difference) and to 10 km (more average difference).

Above is for average temperature at two different places on earth, at similar latitudes. I could not find any direct comparison between average temperature at altitude of the poles and the equator - the wiki article seems to indicate that average temperature at the poles is higher at high altitude, a surprising indicat

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    $\begingroup$ I recently flew over Greenland, at cruise alt temperature was −66 °C. So there are significant deviations from (any) model of the atmosphere. $\endgroup$
    – Jpe61
    Jan 9, 2020 at 9:01
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    $\begingroup$ Note that the wiki article is quoting temperature in the troposphere. It also says that the tropopause (top of the troposphere) is much higher near the equator than at the poles. Reading further, it turns out that the tropopause is at 9km at the poles, and 17km at the equator. It's not surprising that air at 17km is a tad cooler than air at 9km. I'd expect air at 9km at the equator to be warmer than air at 9km at the poles. $\endgroup$ Jan 9, 2020 at 11:37
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    $\begingroup$ In fairness, I'd call −45 °C 'less cold' rather than 'warmer' than −70...−75 °C. When you say 'warmer than the equator', it conjures up penguins in Bermuda shorts. $\endgroup$
    – smci
    Jan 9, 2020 at 13:42
  • $\begingroup$ @MartinBonnersupportsMonica: May be interesting: The Tropopause in the Polar Regions. (for those who don't know yet: Who's Monica) $\endgroup$
    – mins
    Jan 17, 2020 at 15:01

The temperature decreases at approximately 3.57 degree Fahrenheit per 1000', the adiabatic lapse rate, until hitting the tropopause, the boundary between the troposphere (lower altitudes) and the stratosphere. At that point the temps flatten out. The lapse rate is pretty constant everywhere, so yes, it should be colder at higher latitudes for the same altitude.


The tropopause is at a higher altitude at lower latitudes, so you actually end up with cooler temps above the equator then above the poles for very high altitudes (17 km range).


The airplanes do not cruise at a certain altitude, but at a certain pressure level. That could be an irrelevant nitpick if the temperature did not directly affect the pressure as a function of altitude. But it does (through the hydrostatic equilibrium). In colder areas the air is heavier and flight levels are lower as can be seen in maps of geopotential height

At FL360 the pressure is 225 hPa and the altitude is around 36 thousand feet. The 300 hPa and 250 hPa will be quite typical flight levels for airliners (~FL300 and FL340). You can see the current map of altitudes and temperatures for these and other levels at http://weather.uwyo.edu/upperair/uamap.shtml

For example: http://weather.uwyo.edu/cgi-bin/uamap?REGION=nh&OUTPUT=gif&TYPE=an&LEVEL=300&date=2020-01-09&hour=0

enter image description here

The green numbers are temperatures, the blue numbers are altitudes. You can see that for the same flight level the aircraft is at 9600 m above North Africa or Florida and at 8400 m near the north pole in the current weather. In summer the air is warmer and the flight levels are higher as you can easily see by choosing a different date in the app. Also, the south-north gradient is weaker in summer - related to the strength of the polar vortex.

Due to the air compressibility you can never have higher temperatures in the stratosphere than at the Earth surface. However, in certain sense, the air at higher levels IS actually warmer. The potential temperature is higher and if the air is brought to the surface pressure level, it will be indeed warmer. However, that costs mechanical energy (work).

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    $\begingroup$ In stratosphere, even the actual temperature increases with altitude. However most aircraft only barely reach stratosphere, or not at all when it's warm and the tropopause is high. $\endgroup$
    – Jan Hudec
    Jan 9, 2020 at 22:08
  • $\begingroup$ @JanHudec Of course it does and temperature inversions are not uncommon in troposphere either. But it certainly does not reach the surface temperatures of standard atmosphere. Not until the thermosphere. Perhaps it does reach surface temperatures of cold regions, but that is at the boundary with mesosphere where the air is very thin. That is almost space, rather than flying altitude. WAY above SR71 capabilities. $\endgroup$ Jan 9, 2020 at 22:21

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