MadSci Network: Earth Sciences

Re: How is the temperature of the atmosphere measured

Date: Mon Feb 18 20:01:38 2002
Posted By: Renafaye Norby, Faculty, Science Education, Black Hills State Univ.
Area of science: Earth Sciences
ID: 1012533572.Es

There are some air molecules in the thermosphere, the mesosphere, and the 
exosphere. The density decreases as distance from the earth gets larger, 
but each of these layers do have some air molecules. The density is just 
much much less than that in the troposphere and the stratosphere.
Remember that temperature is defined as a measure of kinetic energy of 
molecules compared to a relative scale, such as that on a mercury 
thermometer. More sophisticated instruments are required to measure energy 
as molecular density decreases but instruments exists for measuring a 
number of different quantities at higher elevations - such as percentage 
of ozone in the stratosphere - and so the instruments just have to be more 
precise and refined than the instruments we use at the surface of the 
Another way to get at this measurement is to use a calculation. Remember  
the "universal " gas laws: P time V = R times T
even with a very small P (pressure) we can calculate T (temperature) for a 
given volume as long as we can measure P - using various forms of 

The question of using the quantity of temperature at high altitudes might 
be a different one - why would we need to know, and, what would we use it 
for? However, scientists want to know even if we're not sure how we will 
use the information.  
A textbook for more details (probably at the graduate level) is 
Introduction to Atmospheric Physics 2nd edition by Fleagle and Businger 
(academic press publishers).

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