Encyclopedic Entry

Mount Everest is the highest point of altitude on Earth.

Photograph by George F. Mobley

High-Altitude Cooking
Water normally boils at 100 degrees Celsius (212 degrees Fahrenheit). But for each 500-foot increase in altitude, the boiling point drops about one degree. Water therefore boils much more quickly in Denver, Colorado, than it does in Honolulu, Hawaii. But, because the actual temperature of the water does not increase, it takes longer to cook food.

Altitude, like elevation, is the distance above sea level. Areas are often considered "high-altitude" if they reach at least 2,400 meters (8,000 feet) into the atmosphere.
 
The most high-altitude point on Earth is Mount Everest, in the Himalayan mountain range on the border of Nepal and the Chinese region of Tibet. Mount Everest is 8,850 meters (29,035 feet) tall. The urban area of El Alto, Bolivia, is the most high-altitude city on Earth. All 1.2 million residents live about 4,150 meters (13,615 feet) above sea level.
 
Altitude is related to air pressure. In fact, aviators and mountaineers can measure their altitude by measuring the air pressure around them. This is called indicated altitude, and is measured by an instrument called an altimeter.
 
As altitude rises, air pressure drops. In other words, if the indicated altitude is high, the air pressure is low.
 
This happens for two reasons. The first reason is gravity. Earth's gravity pulls air as close to the surface as possible.
 
The second reason is density. As altitude increases, the amount of gas molecules in the air decreases—the air becomes less dense than air nearer to sea level. This is what meteorologists and mountaineers mean by "thin air." Thin air exerts less pressure than air at a lower altitude.
 
High-altitude locations are usually much colder than areas closer to sea level. This is due to the low air pressure. Air expands as it rises, and the fewer gas molecules—including nitrogen, oxygen, and carbon dioxide—have fewer chances to bump into each other.
 
The human body reacts to high altitudes. Decreased air pressure means that less oxygen is available for breathing. One normal effect of altitude is shortness of breath, since the lungs have to work harder to deliver oxygen to the bloodstream. It can take days and even weeks for a body to adjust to high altitude and low air pressure.
 
People who spend too much time in high-altitude locations risk more serious symptoms of altitude sickness. These may range from headaches and dizziness to much more serious consequences, such as brain or lung damage. Above about 8,000 meters (26,000 feet), the human body cannot survive at all, and starts to shut down. Mountaineers call this altitude the "death zone."
 
To prevent severe altitude sickness, mountaineers bring supplemental (extra) supplies of oxygen and limit their time in the "death zone."
 
Different regions have different air pressures, even at the same altitude. Factors such as climate and humidity impact local air pressure. Air pressure also decreases around the poles. For this reason, if Mount Everest was located in the U.S. state of Alaska or the continent of Antarctica, it could never be summited without supplemental oxygen—the pressure would make the altitude seem 914 meters (3,000 feet) higher.
 
Astronomical Altitude
 
In astronomy, altitude has a somewhat different meaning. It describes the angle between the horizon and some point in the sky. For example, if a star is directly overhead, its altitude is 90 degrees. If a star has just set or is just about to rise, it is right at the horizon and has an altitude of 0 degrees.
 
The North Star, Polaris, does not rise or set because the Earth's axis passes directly through it. It thus has a constant altitude when viewed from anywhere in the Northern Hemisphere. This makes it incredibly useful in celestial navigation.

Vocabulary

Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry

absolute altitude

Noun

elevation, or the physical distance above the ground.

adjust

Verb

to change or modify something to fit with something else.

aircraft

Noun

vehicle able to travel and operate above the ground.

air pressure

Noun

force pressed on an object by air or atmosphere.

altimeter

Noun

device for measuring altitude.

Encyclopedic Entry: altimeter

altitude

Noun

the distance above sea level.

Encyclopedic Entry: altitude

altitude sickness

Noun

illness caused by reduced oxygen levels at high elevations.

angle

Noun

slanting space between two lines that ultimately meet in a point.

ascend

Verb

to go up.

astronomy

Noun

the study of space beyond Earth's atmosphere.

atmosphere

Noun

layers of gases surrounding a planet or other celestial body.

Encyclopedic Entry: atmosphere

axis

Noun

an invisible line around which an object spins.

Encyclopedic Entry: axis

bloodstream

Noun

flow of blood through an organism's body.

border

Noun

natural or artificial line separating two pieces of land.

Encyclopedic Entry: border

celestial navigation

Noun

determining an object's position using the stars and planets as guides.

city

Noun

large settlement with a high population density.

climate

Noun

all weather conditions for a given location over a period of time.

Encyclopedic Entry: climate

consequence

Noun

result or outcome of an action or situation.

decrease

Verb

to lower.

density

Noun

number of things of one kind in a given area.

Encyclopedic Entry: density

elevation

Noun

height above or below sea level.

Encyclopedic Entry: elevation

exert

Verb

to force or pressure.

expand

Verb

to grow or get larger.

gas

Noun

state of matter with no fixed shape that will fill any container uniformly. Gas molecules are in constant, random motion.

gradually

Adverb

slowly, or at a measured pace.

gravity

Noun

physical force by which objects attract, or pull toward, each other.

horizon

Noun

line where the Earth and the sky seem to meet.

Encyclopedic Entry: horizon

humidity

Noun

amount of water vapor in the air.

Encyclopedic Entry: humidity

indicate

Verb

to display or show.

meteorologist

Noun

person who studies patterns and changes in Earth's atmosphere.

molecule

Noun

smallest physical unit of a substance, consisting of two or more atoms linked together.

mountaineer

Noun

someone who climbs mountains.

mountain range

Noun

series or chain of mountains that are close together.

Northern Hemisphere

Noun

half of the Earth between the North Pole and the Equator.

North Star

Noun

the star Polaris, located roughly above the North Pole. Also called the Lodestar or Pole Star.

oxygen

Noun

chemical element with the symbol O, whose gas form is 21% of the Earth's atmosphere.

Polaris

Noun

star that is currently located roughly over the North Pole. Also called the North Star or Lodestar.

pole

Noun

extreme north or south point of the Earth's axis.

region

Noun

any area on the Earth with one or more common characteristics. Regions are the basic units of geography.

Encyclopedic Entry: region

sea level

Noun

base level for measuring elevations. Sea level is determined by measurements taken over a 19-year cycle.

Encyclopedic Entry: sea level

star

Noun

large ball of gas and plasma that radiates energy through nuclear fusion, such as the sun.

summit

Verb

to reach the highest point of a mountain.

symptom

Noun

sign or indication of something.

urban area

Noun

developed, densely populated area where most inhabitants have nonagricultural jobs.

Encyclopedic Entry: urban area

vertical

Noun

up-down direction, or at a right angle to Earth and the horizon.

Credits

Media Credits

The audio, illustrations, photos, and videos are credited beneath the media asset, except for promotional images, which generally link to another page that contains the media credit. The Rights Holder for media is the person or group credited.

Writers

Kim Rutledge
Melissa McDaniel
Diane Boudreau
Tara Ramroop
Santani Teng
Erin Sprout
Hilary Costa
Hilary Hall
Jeff Hunt

Illustrators

Tim Gunther
Mary Crooks, National Geographic Society

Editors

Kara West
Jeannie Evers

Educator Reviewer

Nancy Wynne

Producer

Caryl-Sue, National Geographic Society

Sources

Dunn, Margery G. (Editor). (1989, 1993). "Exploring Your World: The Adventure of Geography." Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society.

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