Department of Energy Argonne National Laboratory Office of Science NEWTON's Homepage NEWTON's Homepage
NEWTON, Ask A Scientist!
NEWTON Home Page NEWTON Teachers Visit Our Archives Ask A Question How To Ask A Question Question of the Week Our Expert Scientists Volunteer at NEWTON! Frequently Asked Questions Referencing NEWTON About NEWTON About Ask A Scientist Education At Argonne Barometers
Name: amber
Status: student
Age: 12
Location: N/A
Country: N/A
Date: 2000-2001

Why are barometers so important to science. What is the purpose of the barometers. Any input would help.

Barometers are instruments to measure the pressure of the atmosphere. We think of air as "very light", but in fact it weighs a lot when a column several kilometers high presses down upon the earth [and us]. That pressure [force per unit area] is measured in a number of unit but the one you usually hear on the TV weather is:" millimeters of mercury (mm Hg)." We will skip why that is so, but the point is:" The larger the number, the higher the atmospheric pressure.

The barametric pressure tell us the weight of air pushing down. This can be affected by several things: 1. How cold or hot the air is -- remember hot air rises because it is less dense than cold air. Cold air is denser and pushes down harder. 2. How high the column of air is -- the height of the atmosphere is not the same everywhere, and changes by the hour. If the readings from several locations are marked on a map, there is often one part of the map where all the readings are higher than on others. The line that separates the high readings and the low readings is traced on the map and is called a "front". It is a "cold front" if that line of demarcation moves approximately north to south. It is a "warm front" if the line of pressure differences moves south to north.

There are a number of ways to measure the pressure of the atmosphere. One way is easier to describe in words, without any pictures, so I'll describe that type:

Take two thin metal concave plates, seal them face to face, and seal them around the circumference of the rim. So you have a hollow chamber. Now you will have pumped out the hollow chamber with a vacuum pump so that there is no air in the chamber. How that is done doesn't concern us here, just accept that it can be done easily. So on the outside the atmospheric pressure pushing on the plates, trying to collapse them, and on the evacuated inside you have no air pressure [since there isn't any air in the chamber]. The thin metal plates are squeezed together more or less, depending on the atmospheric pushing on the outside surfaces. There are sensitive ways to observe and measure how much the metal plates move in and out. That is one type of barometer.


Dear Amber- A barometer is an instrument to measure the pressure of the air...the atmospheric pressure. Changes in the atmospheric pressure indicate changes in weather. Weather stations around the world take atmospheric pressure readings each hour, along with other weather observations, such as temperature, wind speed and direction, humidity, and sky condition. Here is some more information about barometers...

The following is from the Encyclopaedia Britannica... here is the link..,5716,13596+1+13436,00.html

barometer - a device used to measure atmospheric pressure. Because atmospheric pressure changes with distance above or below sea level, a barometer can also be used to measure altitude. There are two main types of barometers: mercury and aneroid. In the mercury barometer, atmospheric pressure balances a column of mercury, the height of which can be precisely measured. To increase their accuracy, mercury barometers are often corrected for ambient temperature and the local value of gravity. Common pressure units include pounds per square inch; dynes per square centimetre; newtons per square metre (the SI unit called the pascal); inches, centimetres, or millimetres of mercury; and millibars (1 millibar equals 1,000 dynes per square centimetre, or 0.75 millimetre of mercury). Normal atmospheric pressure is about 14.7 pounds per square inch, equivalent to 30 inches (760 millimetres) of mercury, 1,013.2 millibars, or 101,320 pascals. Of the many different varieties of mercury barometers, most variations arise from different techniques for measuring the height of the mercury column. Though other liquids can be used in a barometer, mercury is the most common. Its density allows the vertical column of the barometer to be of manageable size. If water were used, for instance, the column would have to be 34 feet high.

A nonliquid barometer called the aneroid barometer is widely used in portable instruments and in aircraft altimeters because of its smaller size and convenience. It contains a flexible-walled evacuated capsule, the wall of which deflects with changes in atmospheric pressure. This deflection is coupled mechanically to an indicating needle. A mercury barometer is used to calibrate and check aneroid barometers. Calibration can be, for example, in terms of atmospheric pressure or altitude above sea level. A barometer that mechanically records changes in barometric pressure over time is called a barograph. Though mercury barographs have been made, aneroid barographs are much more common. The motion of the aneroid capsule is magnified through levers to drive a recording pen. The pen traces a line on a graph that is usually wrapped around a cylinder driven by a clockwork mechanism.

I hope this helps you with your question, Amber.

Wendell Bechtold, Meteorologist
Forecaster, National Weather Service
Weather Forecast Office, St. Louis, MO

Barometers serve several very important purposes. First, knowing the atmospheric pressure at different levels in the atmosphere allows us to track weather systems, such as high and low pressure, and therefore make good weather forecasts. Secondly, a form of barometer, called an altimeter, allows airplane pilots to know what height they are in the air; this is crucial to their ability to maintain the altitude that they need to fulfill their flight plan, and to land in poor visibility (by knowing their altitude in comparison to the altitude of the airport runway).

David Cook
Argonne National Laboratory

Click here to return to the Weather Archives

NEWTON is an electronic community for Science, Math, and Computer Science K-12 Educators, sponsored and operated by Argonne National Laboratory's Educational Programs, Andrew Skipor, Ph.D., Head of Educational Programs.

For assistance with NEWTON contact a System Operator (, or at Argonne's Educational Programs

Educational Programs
Building 360
9700 S. Cass Ave.
Argonne, Illinois
60439-4845, USA
Update: June 2012
Weclome To Newton

Argonne National Laboratory