Tag Archives: atmosphere

Altitude and Flight Level

The term elevation refers to the position of a point or an object on the ground above a fixed reference point, usually mean sea level. The term altitude refers to the position of a point or object in the air above a fixed reference point.

But defining altitude can be difficult, and so when altitude is referred to, the reference point must always be explicitly defined. Altitude is normally measured above mean sea level (AMSL) or above ground level (AGL). For example, if an aeroplane flew over the peak of Mount Everest, its altitude could be referred to as either 38 000 ft AMSL or 9000 ft AGL, because the peak of Everest has an elevation of 29 000 ft.

For aircraft it is difficult to measure altitude. You might think that GPS could provide this information, but GPS is designed for positioning on the surface of the Earth and isn’t very good at measuring altitude.

Pilots have always used atmospheric pressure to measure altitude. As an aircraft moves further upwards into the air, there is less air above it pushing down on it and the pressure decreases. This decrease is predictable and easy to calculate:

p_h = p_0 \left( 1- \frac{\gamma h}{T_0} \right)^{\frac{gM}{R\gamma}}

where p_h is the pressure at height hp_0 is the standard atmospheric pressure of 1013.25 hPa\gamma is the rate at which temperature decreases with altitude (the temperature lapse rate); T_0 is the standard temperature; g is the gravitational field strength; M is the molar mass of dry air; and R is the molar gas constant.


Aeroplanes do not fly at a set altitude. Rather they fly at a given flight level, which – although it sounds like a height – is actually a pressure. When a pilot flies at a flight level of 32 000 ft (FL320) they are actually flying at a constant pressure of 275 hPa, and may actually be far above or far below this altitude, depending on the local weather (and therefore pressure) conditions. If they enter an area of particularly high or low pressure they will have to ascend or descend correspondingly.

Using flight levels helps to prevent collisions between aircraft: in the UK aircraft flying on headings between 000° and 089° (north to east) they flight at odd numbered flight levels (FL310, FL330, etc); flying between 090° and 179° (east to south) at odd numbered flight levels plus 500 ft (FL315, FL335); flying between 180° and 269° (south to west) at even numbered flight levels (FL320, FL340); and flying between 270° and 359° (west to north) at even numbered flight levels plus 500 ft (FL325, FL 345). In other parts of the world different flight level rules are used.

The Composition of Earth’s Atmosphere With Elevation

In researching a post about the Kármán Line I discovered the NASA MSIE E-90 atmosphere model (thanks to Rhett Allain) which models the composition of Earth’s atmosphere up to an elevation of 1000 km. I found it very interesting.


Up to around 100 km the composition is fairly “normal”, in that it’s what we surface-dwellers would expect: mostly molecular nitrogen (N2 rather than N) and molecular oxygen (O2) with a small amount (0.93%) of argon and traces of some other gases (carbon dioxide, neon, etc.).

After 100 km the percentage of molecular nitrogen and molecular oxygen decrease sharply, and there is a similarly sharp increase in monatomic and triatomic oxygen, better known as ozone (i.e. this represents the “ozone layer”). There is also a small increase in the percentage of monatomic nitrogen and nitrogen compounds, and argon disappears entirely.

By 200 km ozone dominates, and this continues to about 650 km where helium takes over as the predominant component. Monatomic nitrogen and nitrogen compound concentration peaks at around 500 km, with an overall concentration of 1.6%.

By the time we reach an elevation of 1000 km helium makes up 93% of the atmosphere. This is due to the fact that helium is an unreactive and very light atom (with a mass about one-eighth of oxygen) and thus isn’t held tightly by Earth’s gravitational field. (Helium is so light that it can escape Earth’s gravity entirely.) The bulk of the remainder is hydrogen, also prevalent due to its low mass (about one-sixteenth of oxygen’s).


The concentration of “normal” gases in the atmosphere with elevation.


The concentration of less common gases in the atmosphere with elevation.

It’s important to note that the graphs above all show concentration as a percentage of the total number of particles of gas in the atmosphere, rather than by mass or volume. The atmosphere becomes incredibly thin at high elevations, so that particles of gas may travel many kilometres between collisions, and if absolute concentrations were used instead, the graph would look very different (and be completely unusable, which is why I haven’t included it here).