Does elevation affect temperature? The answer is yes. But meteorology, like other sciences, isn’t quite that simple. It is important to remember that temperature can vary for a variety of reasons including shade, sun, nearby buildings (or lack of them), and inversions (colder air sinking into valleys because it’s heavier than warm air). All of those things and more can influence the temperature. So, can you estimate the temperature at the summit if you know the temperature at the base?
Yes, but it is a bit confusing. If there’s no snow (or rain) falling from the sky and you’re not in a cloud, then the temperature decreases by about 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit for every 1,000 feet up you go in elevation. That is 9.8°Celsius per 1,000 meters in mathematical speak. However, if you’re in a cloud, or it is snowing/raining, the temperature decreases by about 3.3°F for every 1,000 feet up you go in elevation. That’s a change of 6°C per 1,000 meters.
[Related: Here comes La Niña: The little girl may pack big northern snows]
Wondering why temperature decreases with higher altitude. Michael Tinnesand, associate director for academic programs at the American Chemical Society, explained it in Scientific American like this: “The farther away you get from the earth, the thinner the atmosphere gets. The total heat content of a system is directly related to the amount of matter present, so it is cooler at higher elevations.
Scientific American further explains it like this: “Atmospheric pressure is simply the weight of the air pushing down on you from above. As you increase in elevation, there is less air above you thus the pressure decreases. As the pressure decreases, air molecules spread out further (i.e. air expands), and the temperature decreases. If the humidity is at 100 percent (because it’s snowing), the temperature decreases more slowly with height.”
Want to get a bit deeper into the weeds? The temperature in the troposphere — the lowest layer of the earth’s atmosphere — generally decreases with altitude. That’s because the troposphere’s gases absorb very little of the incoming solar radiation. Instead, the ground absorbs this radiation and then heats the tropospheric air by conduction and convection, according to COTF (Classroom of the Future Meteorology of Ozone’s).
Here’s a handy chart to visualize the temperature decrease with elevation:
So let’s put all this theory to the work. Say you wake up at your favorite Colorado resort and it’s snowing hard. The temperature at the base is 20°F and the summit is about 3,000 feet higher. Then you could estimate the temperature at the top would be about 10°F (3,000 feet elevation change at 3.3°F per 1,000 feet equals about 10°F temperature decrease).
Or perhaps you’re at the top of the mountain on a sunny but very cold day with temperatures around 5°F. It’s early afternoon and while it was cold when you started the day at the base, you’re now thinking it would be fun to head to the bottom to have a beverage and sit in the sun. But will it be warm enough down there? Of course!
Since it’s about 5,000 feet between the summit and the base of the mountain, the temperature at the base village should be about 27°F warmer than at the top (5,000 feet elevation change at 5.4°F per 1,000 feet equals about 27°F temperature increase). So the temperature at the base should be around 32°F. Sit in the sun after a nice day on the hill, and this is the scientifically perfect temperature to enjoy an outdoor beverage.
Just remember that temperature changes 5.4°F/1,000 feet (9.8°C/1,000 meters) if it’s dry and 3.3°F/1,000 feet (6°C/1,000 meters) if it’s snowing.
[Related: US: Winter 21/22 Long-Range Weather Forecast]
Temperature change formula
There is a formula to determine temperature change with altitude called the temperature altitude equation). NPTEL a national online program in India describes it like this: “For example, in the troposphere, the variation of temperature with altitude is given by the equation T = T0 – λ h (2.4) where T0 is the sea level temperature, T is the temperature at the altitude h and λ is the temperature lapse rate in the troposphere.” Here is an online elevation temperature calculator
So, bundle up the higher you go on the mountain and enjoy a great day on skis or snowboards, regardless of the weather.