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Barometers-How They Work and What They Do

By: Weatherstationsusa , 9:50 PM GMT on April 21, 2013

Barometers: How They Work and What They Do

Once an all-human endeavor based mainly upon changes in barometric pressure, current weather conditions, and sky condition, weather forecasting now relies on computer-based models that take many atmospheric factors into account. However, the modern barometers are still a key tool for both professional and amateur weather forecasters. Virtually all of the numerous commercially available weather stations include a barometer.
Use of a Barometer

Using barometric pressure and the pressure tendency (the change of pressure over time) has been used in weather forecasting since the late 19th century. When used in combination with wind observations, reasonably accurate short-term forecasts can be made. Simultaneous barometric readings from across a network of weather stations allow maps of air pressure to be produced, which were the first form of the modern weather map when created in the 19th century. Isobars, lines of equal pressure, when drawn on such a map, gives a contour map showing areas of high and low pressure. Localized high atmospheric pressure acts as a barrier to approaching weather systems, diverting their course. Atmospheric lift caused by low-level wind convergence into the surface low brings clouds and potentially precipitation. The larger the change in pressure, especially if more than 3.5 hPa, the larger the change in weather can be expected. If the pressure drop is rapid, a low pressure system is approaching, and there is a greater chance of rain . Rapid pressure rises, such as in the wake of a cold front, are associated with improving weather conditions, such as clearing skies.


Water-based barometers

The concept that decreasing atmospheric pressure predicts stormy weather, postulated by Lucien Vidie, provides the theoretical basis for a weather prediction device called a "storm glass" or a "Goethe barometer" (named for Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe, the renowned German writer and mathematician who developed a simple but effective weather ball barometer using the principles developed by Torricelli.)

The weather ball barometer consists of a glass container with a sealed body, half filled with water. A narrow spout connects to the body below the water level and rises above the water level. The narrow spout is open to the atmosphere. When the air pressure is lower than it was at the time the body was sealed, the water level in the spout will rise above the water level in the body; when the air pressure is higher, the water level in the spout will drop below the water level in the body. A variation of this type of barometer can be easily made at home.

Mercury Barometers

A mercury barometer has a glass tube with a height of at least 84 cm, closed at one end, with an open mercury-filled reservoir at the base. The weight of the mercury creates a vacuum in the top of the tube. Mercury in the tube adjusts until the weight of the mercury column balances the atmospheric force exerted on the reservoir. High atmospheric pressure places more force on the reservoir, forcing mercury higher in the column. Low pressure allows the mercury to drop to a lower level in the column by lowering the force placed on the reservoir. Since higher temperature at the instrument will reduce the density of the mercury, the scale for reading the height of the mercury is adjusted to compensate for this effect.

Torricelli documented that the height of the mercury in a barometer changed slightly each day and concluded that this was due to the changing pressure in the atmosphere. He wrote: "We live submerged at the bottom of an ocean of elementary air, which is known by incontestable experiments to have weight.

The mercury barometer's design gives rise to the expression of atmospheric pressure in inches or millimeters or feet: the pressure is quoted as the level of the mercury's height in the vertical column. Typically, atmospheric pressure is measured between 26.5 to 31.5 in Hg. One atmosphere (1 atm) is equivalent to 760 millimeters of mercury.

Design changes to make the instrument more sensitive, simpler to read, and easier to transport resulted in variations such as the basin, siphon, wheel, cistern, Fortin, multiple folded, stereometric, and balance barometers. Fitzroy barometers combine the standard mercury barometer with a thermometer, as well as a guide of how to interpret pressure changes. Fortin barometers use a variable displacement mercury cistern, usually constructed with a thumbscrew pressing on a leather diaphragm bottom. This compensates for displacement of mercury in the column with varying pressure. To use a Fortin barometer, the level of mercury is set to the zero level before the pressure is read on the column. Some models also employ a valve for closing the cistern, enabling the mercury column to be forced to the top of the column for transport. This prevents water-hammer damage to the column in transit.

On June 5, 2007, a European Union directive was enacted to restrict the sale of mercury, thus effectively ending the production of new mercury barometers in Europe.

Vacuum Pump Oil Barometer

Using vacuum pump oil as the working fluid in a barometer has led to the creation of the new "World's Tallest Barometer" in February 2013. The barometer at Portland State University (PSU) uses doubly distilled vacuum pump oil and has a nominal height of ~12.4 m for the oil column height; expected excursions are in the range of ┬▒0.4 m over the course of a year. Vacuum pump oil has very low vapor pressure and it is available in a range of densities; the lowest density vacuum oil was chosen for the PSU barometer to maximize the oil column height.

Aneroid barometers

An aneroid barometer, invented in 1843 by French scientist Lucien Vidie uses a small, flexible metal box called an aneroid cell (capsule), which is made from an alloy of beryllium and copper. The evacuated capsule (or usually more capsules) is prevented from collapsing by a strong spring. Small changes in external air pressure cause the cell to expand or contract. This expansion and contraction drives mechanical levers such that the tiny movements of the capsule are amplified and displayed on the face of the aneroid barometer. Many models include a manually set needle which is used to mark the current measurement so a change can be seen. In addition, the mechanism is made deliberately "stiff" so that tapping the barometer reveals whether the pressure is rising or falling as the pointer moves.


A barograph, which records a graph of some atmospheric pressure, uses an aneroid barometer mechanism to move a needle on a smoked foil or to move a pen upon paper, both of which are attached to a drum moved by clockwork.

More Unusual Barometers

The Galaxy Nexus has a built-in barometer!

There are many other more unusual types of barometer. From variations on the storm barometer, such as the Collins Patent Table Barometer, to more traditional looking designs such as Hooke's Otheometer and the Ross Sympiesometer. Some, such as the Shark Oil barometer, work only in a certain temperature range, achieved in warmer climates. A barometer can also be found in smartphones such as the Samsung Galaxy Nexus smartphone, which is included to provide a faster GPS lock.



The density of mercury will change with temperature, so a reading must be adjusted for the temperature of the instrument. For this purpose a mercury thermometer is usually mounted on the instrument. Temperature compensation of an aneroid barometer is accomplished by including a bi-metal element in the mechanical linkages. Aneroid barometers sold for domestic use typically have no compensation.


As the air pressure will be decreased at altitudes above sea level (and increased below sea level) the actual reading of the instrument will be dependent upon its location. This pressure is then converted to an equivalent sea-level pressure for purposes of reporting and for adjusting aircraft altimeters (as aircraft may fly between regions of varying normalized atmospheric pressure owing to the presence of weather systems). Aneroid barometers have a mechanical adjustment for altitude that allows the equivalent sea level pressure to be read directly and without further adjustment if the instrument is not moved to a different altitude.

The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.

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12:59 AM GMT on April 23, 2013
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About Weatherstationsusa

Doug Abbott is a former US Navy Meteorologist with a long history of an interest in weather phenomena and the sharing of his knowledge and experience.

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