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An Introduction to Air Density

and
Density Altitude Calculations
updated: 1 Mar 2015
copyright 1998 - 2015 Richard Shelquist
(from http://wahiduddin.net/calc/density_altitude.htm )

Density Altitude On-Line Calculators:


For your convenience, the following density altitude calculators are available for use on this web site:
- Density Altitude Calculator, using dew point
- Density Altitude Calculator, using relative humidity

What is density altitude?


Density altitude is defined as the altitude at which the density of the International
Standard Atmosphere (ISA) is the same as the density of the air being evaluated.
(The Standard Atmosphere is simply a mathematical model of the atmosphere which is standardized
so that predictable calculations can be made.)

So, the basic idea of calculating density altitude is to calculate the actual
density of the air, and then find the altitude at which that same air density
occurs in the International Standard Atmosphere.
In the following paragraphs, we'll go step by step through the process of calculating the actual density
of the air, and then determining the corresponding density altitude.
And finally, at the end of this article, we'll compare the accurate density altitude calculations with the
results of a greatly simplified density altitude equation which ignores the effects due to water vapor in
the air.

Some different meanings of the word "altitude":

As odd as it may seem, an aircraft altimeter does not actually know anything about
altitude, it only measures pressure. For pilots, it is very important to understand
that an aircraft altimeter only measures air pressure (not true altitude). This point is
especially important to understand with the ever-increasing use of GPS. An aircraft
flying at a specific pressure altitude (as indicated by an altimeter set to 29.92 in-Hg)
may note some significantly different altitude displayed on a GPS (which measures
actual distance above mean sea level). In some cases this altitude difference is
small... but in other cases it could be enough to cause a mid-air collision if a pilot
was flying on a GPS mean-sea-level (MSL) altitude rather than the assigned
pressure altitude.

Density altitude is yet another sort of altitude, based solely on air density.
Density altitude is neither "pressure altitude" nor "mean sea-level altitude",
it is simply the altitude in the International Standard Atmosphere model at
which the air has a certain value of density... hence the name density
altitude.
Therefore, it's crucial to always verify what is meant by "altitude".
Now... on to Density Altitude.....

Density and Density Altitude:


Although the concept of density altitude is commonly used to describe the effect on aircraft and
engine performance, the underlying property of interest is actually the air density.
For example, the lift of an aircraft wing, the aerodynamic drag of an aircraft, and the thrust of a
propeller blade are all directly proportional to the air density. Similarly, the horsepower output of an
internal combustion engine is related to the air density, the correct size of a carburetor jet is related to
the air density, and the pulse width command to an electronic fuel injection nozzle is also related to
the air density.

It is important to note that water vapor in the air causes a decrease in air density.
Therefore, on a humid day, a wing has less lift and a normally aspirated engine has
less power. The fact that humid air is less dense may seem counter-intuitive, so
you'll find a full explanation in the Moist Air is Less Dense section later in this
article.
In general, if you really want to be precise and consistent in matters involving air density, it will be
best to focus attention on the actual air density, not this arcane concept of density altitude. Density
altitude has long been a convenient yardstick for pilots to compare the performance of aircraft at
various altitudes, but it is in fact the air density which is the fundamentally important quantity, and
density altitude is simply one way to express the air density.

Actually, it would be far more meaningful, useful and precise if the aviation community would simply
use the actual air density in kg/m3, and if the data in aircraft pilot's handbooks were also expressed in
actual air density.
Hopefully, someday all of the aircraft performance tables/charts and weather reporting systems will
simply use the actual air density and thereby avoid the entire concept of density altitude... but, for
now, we're stuck with "density altitude".

Note: If you're just hunting for a simple calculation for density altitude without the
effects of moisture, you will find a Simpler Methods of Calculation section near the
end of this article. But, for those who want to understand the effects of moisture on
density altitude, please read on.

Units:
The 1976 International Standard Atmosphere (which is used as the basis for these Density Altitude
calculations) is mostly described in metric SI units, and I have chosen to use those same units (in
general) throughout this article. See ref 8 and ref 9 for conversion factors to your favorite units.

Air Density Calculations:


To begin to understand the calculation of air density, consider the ideal gas law:

(1)

P*V = n*Rg*T

where: P = pressure
V = volume
n = number of moles
Rg = universal gas constant
T = temperature
Density is simply the mass of the molecules of the ideal gas in a certain volume,
which may be mathematically expressed as:

(2)

D=m/V

where: D = density
m = mass
V = volume
Note that:

m=n*M
where: m = mass
n = number of moles
M = molar mass
And define a specific gas constant for the gas under consideration:

R = Rg / M
where R = specific gas constant
Rg = universal gas constant
M = molar mass
Then, by combining the previous equations, the expression for the density becomes:

(3)
where: D = density, kg/m3
P = pressure, Pascals ( multiply mb by 100 to get Pascals)
R = specific gas constant , J/(kg*degK) = 287.05 for dry air
T = temperature, deg K = deg C + 273.15
As an example, using the ISA standard sea level conditions of P = 101325 Pa and T
= 15 deg C,
the air density at sea level, may be calculated as:
D = (101325) / (287.05 * (15 + 273.15)) = 1.2250 kg/m3
This example has been derived for the dry air of the standard conditions. However, for real-world
situations, it is necessary to understand how the density is affected by the moisture in the air.
Neglecting the small errors due to non-ideal gas compressibility and vapor pressure measurements
not made over liquid water (see ref 14), the density of a mixture of dry air molecules and

water vapor molecules may be simply written as:

(4a)

Which, with some substitutions and rearranging (see ref 15),


may also be written as:

(4b)
where: D = density, kg/m3
Pd = pressure of dry air (partial pressure), Pascals
Pv= pressure of water vapor (partial pressure), Pascals
P = Pd + Pv = total air pressure, Pascals ( multiply mb by 100 to
get Pascals)
Rd = gas constant for dry air, J/(kg*degK) = 287.05 = R/Md
Rv = gas constant for water vapor, J/(kg*degK) = 461.495 = R/Mv
R = universal gas constant = 8314.32 (in 1976 Standard
Atmosphere)
Md = molecular weight of dry air = 28.964 gm/mol
Mv = molecular weight of water vapor = 18.016 gm/mol
T = temperature, deg K = deg C + 273.15

To use equation 4a or 4b to determine the density of the air, one must know the actual air pressure
(which is also called absolute pressure, total air pressure, or station pressure), the water vapor
pressure, and the temperature.
It is possible to obtain a rough approximation of the absolute pressure by adjusting an altimeter to
read zero altitude and reading the value in the Kollsman window as the actual air pressure. Near the
end of this page I'll discuss how to use the altimeter reading to accurately determine the actual
pressure. Alternatively, there are many little electronic gadgets that can measure the actual air
pressure and the vapor pressure directly, and quite accurately.
The water vapor pressure can easily be determined from the dew point or from the relative humidity,
and the ambient temperature can be measured in a well ventilated place out of the direct sunlight.
In the following section, we'll learn to calculate the water vapor pressure.

Vapor Pressure:
In order to calculate water vapor pressure, we need to first calculate the saturation
vapor pressure. There are many algorithms for determining the saturation vapor
pressure, but for simplicity we'll just look at two algorithms:

A very accurate, albeit quite odd looking, formula for determining the
saturation vapor pressure is a polynomial developed by Herman Wobus
(see ref 2 ) :
(5)

Es = eso / p8
where: Es = saturation pressure of water vapor, mb
eso=6.1078
p = (c0+T*(c1+T*(c2+T*(c3+T*(c4+T*(c5+T*(c6+T*(c7+T*(c8+T*(c9))))))))))
T = temperature, deg C
c0 = 0.99999683
c1 = -0.90826951*10-2
c2 = 0.78736169*10-4
c3 = -0.61117958*10-6
c4 = 0.43884187*10-8
c5 = -0.29883885*10-10
c6 = 0.21874425*10-12
c7 = -0.17892321*10-14
c8 = 0.11112018*10-16
c9 = -0.30994571*10-19

For situations where simplicity is desirable and slightly less accuracy is acceptable, the following
equation offers good results, especially at the higher ambient air temperatures where the saturation
pressure becomes significant for the density altitude calculations.

(6)
where: Es = saturation pressure of water vapor, mb
Tc = temperature, deg C
c0 = 6.1078
c1 = 7.5
c2 = 237.3
See ref 2 and ref 11 for additional vapor pressure formulas.

Here's a calculator that compares the saturation vapor pressure for any given temperature, showing
the results from using equations 5 and 6 given above:

Saturation Vapor Press Calculator

Air Temperature:

degrees C

Reset

Sat vapor press from Eqn 5:

mb

Sat vapor press from Eqn 6:

mb

by Richard Shelquist
The Smithsonian reference tables (see ref 1) give the following values of saturated vapor pressure
values at specified temperatures. Entering these known temperatures into the calculator will allow you
to evaluate the accuracy of the calculated results.

Deg C

Es, mb

30
20
10
0
-10
-30

42.430
23.373
12.272
6.1078
2.8627
0.5088

Armed with the value of the saturation vapor pressure, the next step is to determine the actual value
of vapor pressure.
When calculating the vapor pressure, it is often more accurate to use the dew point temperature
rather than the relative humidity. Although relative humidity can be used to determine the vapor
pressure, the value of relative humidity is strongly affected by the ambient temperature, and is
therefore constantly changing during the day as the air is heated and cooled.
In contrast, the value of the dew point is much more stable and is often nearly constant for a given air
mass regardless of the normal daily temperature changes. Therefore, using the dew point as the
measure of humidity allows for more stable and therefore potentially more accurate results.

Actual Vapor Pressure from the Dew Point:


To determine the actual vapor pressure, simply use the dew point as the value of T in equation 5 or 6.
That is, at the dew point, Pv = Es.

(7a)

Pv = Es

at the dew point

where Pv= pressure of water vapor (partial pressure)


Es = saturation vapor pressure ( multiply mb by 100 to get
Pascals)

Actual Vapor Pressure from Relative Humidity:


Relative humidity is defined as the ratio (expressed as a percentage) of the actual
vapor pressure to the saturation vapor pressure at a given temperature.

To find the actual vapor pressure;


simply multiply the saturation vapor pressure by the percentage and the result is
the actual vapor pressure.
For example,
if the relative humidity is 40% and the temperature is 30 deg C, then the saturation vapor pressure is
42.43 mb and the actual vapor pressure is 40% of 42.43 mb, which is 16.97 mb.
(7b)

Pv = RH * Es

where Pv= pressure of water vapor (partial pressure)


RH = relative humidity (expressed as a decimal value)
Es = saturation vapor pressure ( multiply mb by 100 to get Pascals)

Dry Air Pressure:


Now that the water vapor pressure is known, we are nearly ready to calculate the density of the
combination of dry air and water vapor as described in equation 4a, but first, we need to know the
pressure of the dry air.

The total measured atmospheric pressure (also called actual pressure,


absolute pressure, or station pressure) is the sum of the pressure of the
dry air and the vapor pressure:
(8a)

P = Pd + Pv

where: P = total pressure


Pd = pressure due to dry air
Pv = pressure due to water vapor

So, rearranging that equation:


(8b)

Pd = P - Pv

where: P = total pressure


Pd = pressure due to dry air
Pv = pressure due to water vapor
Now that we have the pressure due to water vapor and also the pressure due to the dry air, we have
all of the information that is required to calculate the air density using equation 4a.

Calculate the air density:


Now armed with those equations and the actual air pressure, the vapor pressure and the
temperature, the density of the air can be calculated.
Here's a calculator that determines the air density from the actual pressure, dew point and air
temperature using equations 4, 6, 7 and 8 as defined above:

Air Density Calculator


Air Temperature

degrees C

Actual Air Pressure

mb

Dew Point

degrees C

Reset

Air Density

kg/m3
by Richard Shelquist

Moist Air is Less Dense...


As you may have noticed, moist air is less dense than dry air. It may seem reasonable to try to argue
against that simple fact based on the observation that water is denser than dry air... which is certainly
true, but irrelevant.
Solids, liquids and gasses each have their own unique laws, so it is not possible to equate the
behavior of liquid water with the behavior of water vapor.
The ideal gas law says that a certain volume of air at a certain pressure has a certain number of
molecules. That's just the way this world works, and that simple fact is expressed as the ideal gas
law, which was shown above in equation 1.
Note that this is the gas law... not a liquid law, nor a solid law, but a gas law. Hence, any mental
comparisons to the behavior of a liquid are of little help in understanding what is going on in the air,
and are likely to simply result in greater confusion.
According to the ideal gas law, a cubic meter of air around you, wherever you are right now, has a
certain number of molecules in it, and each of those molecules has a certain weight. The key to
understanding air density changes due to moisture is grasping the idea that a given volume of air has
only a certain number of molecules in it. That is, whenever a water vapor molecule is added to the air,
it displaces some other molecule in that volume of air.
Most of the air is made up of nitrogen molecules N2 with a somewhat lesser amount of oxygen O2
molecules, and even lesser amounts of other molecules such as water vapor.

Since density is weight divided by volume, we need to consider the weight of each
of the molecules in the air. Nitrogen has an atomic weight of 14, so an N2 molecule
has a weight of 28. For oxygen, the atomic weight is 16, so an O2 molecule has a
weight of 32.
Now along comes a water molecule, H2O. Hydrogen has an atomic weight of 1. So
the molecule H20 has a weight of 18. Note that the water molecule is lighter in
weight than either a nitrogen molecule (with a weight of 28) or an oxygen molecule
(with a weight of 32).
Therefore, when a given volume of air, which always contains only a certain number
of molecules, has some water molecules in it, it will weigh less than the same
volume of air without any water molecules. That is, moist air is less dense than dry
air.

Some examples of calculations using air density:


Example 1)

The lift of an aircraft wing may be described mathematically (see ref 8) as:
L = c1 * d * v2/2 * a
where:

L = lift
c1 = lift coefficient
d = air density
v = velocity
a = wing area

From the lift equation, we see that the lift of a wing is directly proportional to the air density. So if a
certain wing can lift, for example, 3000 pounds at sea level standard conditions where the density is
1.2250 kg/m3, then how much can the wing lift on a warm summer day in Denver when the air
temperature is 95 deg (35 deg C), the actual pressure is 24.45 in-Hg (828 mb) and the dew point is
67 deg F (19.4 deg C)? The answer is about 2268 pounds.

Example 2)
The engine manufacturer Rotax (see ref 6 ) advises that their carburetor main jet diameter should be
adjusted according to the air density. Specifically, if the engine is jetted properly at air density d1,
then for operation at air density d2 the new jet diameter j2 is given mathematically as:
j2 = j1 * (d2/d1) (1/4)
where: j2 = diameter of new jet
j1 = diameter of jet that was proper at density d1
d1 = density at which the original jet j1 was correct
d2 = the new air density
That is, Rotax says that the correct jet diameter should be sized according to the fourth root of the
ratio of the air densities. (Note: according to Poiseuille's Law, the volumetric flow rate through a
circular cross section is proportional to the fourth power of the diameter.)
For example, if the correct jet at sea level standard conditions is a number 160 and the jet number is
a measure of the jet diameter, then what jet should be used for operations on the warm summer day
in Denver described in example 1 above? The ideal answer is a jet number 149, and in practice the
closest available jet size is then selected.

Example 3)
In the same service bulletin mentioned above, Rotax says that their engine horsepower will decrease
in proportion to the air density.
hp2 = hp1 * (d2/d1)
where: hp2 = the new horsepower at density d2
hp1 = the old horsepower at density d1

If a Rotax engine was rated at 38 horsepower at sea level standard conditions, what is the available
horsepower according to that formula when the engine is operated at a temperature of 30 deg C, a
pressure of 925 mb and a dew point of 25 deg C? The answer is approximately 32 horsepower. (See
also details on the SAE method of correcting horsepower. this is directly below)

Dyno Correction Factor and Relative


Horsepower

So what's all this correction factor stuff anyway??


The horsepower and torque available from a normally aspirated internal combustion engine are
dependent upon the density of the air... higher density means more oxygen molecules and more
power... lower density means less oxygen and less power.
The relative horsepower, and the dyno correction factor, allow mathematical calculation of the affects
of air density on the wide-open-throttle horsepower and torque. The dyno correction factor is simply
the mathematical reciprocal of the relative horsepower value.
Originally, all of the major US auto manufacturers were in or around Detroit Michigan, and the dyno
reading taken in Detroit were considered to be the standard. However, as the auto industry spread
both across the country and around the globe, the auto manufacturers needed a way to correlate the
horsepower/torque data taken at those "non-standard" locations with the data taken at the "standard"
location. Therefore, the SAE created J1349 in order to convert (or "correct") the dyno data taken, for
example, in California or in Tokyo to be comparable to data taken at standard conditions in Detroit.

What's it good for?


One common use of the dyno correction factor is to standardize the horsepower and torque readings,
so that the effects of the ambient temperature and pressure are removed from the readings. By using
the dyno correction factor, power and torque readings can be directly compared to the readings taken
on some other day, or even taken at some other altitude.
That is, the corrected readings are the same as the result that you would get by taking the car (or
engine) to a certain temperature controlled, humidity controlled, pressure controlled dyno shop where
they measure "standard" power, based on the carefully controlled temperature, humidity and
pressure.
If you take your car to the dyno on a cold day at low altitude, it will make a lot of power. And if you
take exactly the same car back to the same dyno on a hot day, it will make less power. But if you take
the exact same car to the "standard" dyno (where the temperature, humidity and pressure are all
carefully controlled) on those different days, it will always make exactly the same power.

Sometimes you may want to know how much power you are really making on that specific day due to
the temperature, humidity and pressure on that day; in that case, you should look at the uncorrected
power readings.
But when you want to see how much more power you have solely due to the new headers, or the new
cam, then you will find that the corrected power is more useful, since it removes the effects of the
temperature, humidity and atmospheric pressure and just shows you how much more (or less) power
you have than in your previous tests.
There is no "right" answer... it's simply a matter of how you want to use the information.
If you want to know whether you are going to burn up the tranny with too much power on a cool,
humid day, then go to the dyno and look at uncorrected power to see how exactly much power you
have under these conditions.
But if you want to compare the effects due to modifications, or you want to compare several different
cars at different times, then the corrected readings of the "standard" dyno will be more useful.

How's it calculated?
The Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) created the SAE J1349 JUN90 standard method for
correcting horsepower and torque readings so that they will seem as if the readings had all been
taken at the same "standard" test cell where the air pressure, humidity and air temperature are held
constant. Furthermore, the SAE J1349 JUN90 standard includes an assumed mechanical efficiency
of 85% in order to provide an estimate of the true engine horsepower (without accessories).
The equation for the dyno correction factor given in SAE J1349 JUN90 (for normally aspirated
gasoline engines), converted to use pressure in mb, is:

where: cf = the dyno correction factor


Pd = the pressure of the dry air, mb
Tc = ambient temperature, deg C
The pressure of the dry air Pd, is found by subtracting the vapor pressure Pv from the actual air
pressure. For more information about pressures and calculation of the vapor pressure, see Air
Density and Density Altitude.

The relative horsepower is simply the mathematical reciprocal of the


correction factor.

SAE J1349 Update:

In August 2004 the SAE released J1349 Revised AUG2004 which specifies that the preferred
method of determining the friction power used by the motor accessories is actual measurement, and
that the assumption of 85% mechanical efficiency (as formerly used in SAE J1349 Revision JUN90)
should only be used when actual friction data are not available.
The equation for computing brake horsepower (for normally aspirated gasoline engines), assuming
85% mechanical efficiency, was very slightly revised (and is presented here converted to use
pressure in mb) as:

Section 5.1 of the SAE J1349 AUG2004 revision also makes it clear that this correction factor is not
intended to provide accurate corrections over an extremely wide range, but rather that the intended
range of air temperatures is 15 to 35 deg C, and the intended range of dry air pressures is 900 to
1050 mb.
Note: SAE J607 is an older standard which did not attempt to include any of the engine's internal
friction losses. Consequently, J607 gives higher values, which fail to include the friction losses. SAE
J1349 is a newer standard which does specify various ways to include the engine's internal losses,
and therefore presents a more accurate indication of engine power.

Horsepower and Torque:


Power is the rate at which work is done. When the engine torque is turning the crankshaft and power
is being delivered, the resulting horsepower may be expressed as:

which can be simplified as

where: hp = horsepower, hp
t = torque, ft-lbs
rpm = engine speed, revolutions per minute

This is a great formula. Basically it says that if you can keep the same amount of torque, then the
more rpm you can turn, the more horsepower you get!
That's why Formula One, CART and IRL engines all turn incredible rpm. The faster the engine turns,
the more power it can make (when it's properly tuned to operate at that speed).

Consider for example: a normally aspirated internal combustion engine typically produces about 1 to
1.5 ft-lbs of torque per cubic inch when it is properly tuned to operate at any specific rpm. With a 2
liter (about 122 cubic inches) engine, producing 1.5 ft-lbs of torque per cubic inch, you would expect
to get about 180 hp at 5200 rpm... but you will get a whopping 415 hp if you can get it to run at 12,000
rpm.
The 3.5 liter IRL engine is reported to produce about 650 hp at 10,700 rpm. That would be about 1.5
ft-lbs per cubic inch at peak rpm.
The Ferrari 3.0 liter Formula One engine is rumored to produce about 860 hp at 18,500 rpm. That
would be about 1.33 ft-lbs per cubic inch at peak rpm.
The 5.86 liter NASCAR Cup engine is reported to produce around 850 hp at 9000 rpm, which is about
1.39 ft-lbs per cubic inch at peak rpm.
Frankly, it seems that these ridiculous rpm values are one of the reasons that CART, IRL and F1
racing are so poorly received here in the USA. People want to see and hear race cars that they can
identify with, cars that have something in common with the spectator's own cars, not these silly little
motors that sound like angry bees. And if NASCAR fails to specify some reasonable rpm limits, they
too may be doomed to the same fate.
And at the other end of the rpm spectrum, one model of the 360 cubic inch four cylinder Lycoming IO360 aircraft engine produces 180 hp at 2700 rpm, which is 0.97 ft-lbs per cubic inch.
In general, production automobile engines that have a broad torque band will produce about 0.9 to
1.1 ft-lbs per cubic inch. Highly tuned production engines, such as the Honda S2000 or the Ferrari
F50 are in the range of 1.1 to 1.3 ft-lbs per cubic inch. Highly tuned race engines such as NASCAR,
IRL and Formula One are often in the range of 1.3 to 1.5 ft-lbs per cubic inch.

References:
NASCAR vs F1 engine comparisons:
Piston Engine Technology, EPI Inc
Engine Technology:
Race Engine Techcnology - magazine and on-line
Conversion Factors:
To convert to other units, try the DigitalDutch or NIST web sites.

Importance of Air Density:

So far, we've been discussing real physical attributes which can be precisely measured, with air
density being the weight per unit volume of an air mass. The air density, as shown in the previous
examples, affects the lift of a wing, the fuel required by an engine, and the power produced by an
engine. When precision is required, air density is a much better measure than

density altitude.
Air density is a physical quality which can be accurately measured and verified. On the other hand,
density altitude is a rather conceptual quantity which depends upon a hypothetical "standard
atmosphere" which may or may not accurately correspond to the actual physical conditions at any
given location. Nonetheless, density altitude has a long heritage and remains a common (although
rather hypothetical) representation of air density.

Back on the trail of Density Altitude...


The definition of density altitude is the altitude at which the density of the 1976 International Standard
Atmosphere is the same as the density of the air being evaluated. So, now that we know how to
determine the air density, we can solve for the altitude in the International Standard Atmosphere that
has the same value of density.

The 1976 International Standard Atmosphere (ISA) is a mathematical


description of a theoretical atmospheric column of air which uses the
following constants (see ref 16):
Po = 101325 sea level standard pressure, Pa
To = 288.15 sea level standard temperature, deg K ( 15 deg C)
g = 9.80665 gravitational constant, m/sec2
L = 6.5 temperature lapse rate, deg K/km
R = 8.31432 gas constant, J/ mol*deg K
M = 28.9644 molecular weight of dry air, gm/mol

In the ISA, the lowest region is the troposphere which extends from sea level up to 11 km (about
36,000 ft), and the model which will be developed here is only valid in the troposphere.

The following equations describe temperature, pressure and density of the air in the
ISA troposphere:
(9)

(10)

(see ISA pg 10, Eqn 23)

(see ISA pg 12, Eqn 33a)

(11)

where:

(see ISA pg 15, Eqn 42)

T = ISA temperature in deg K


P = ISA pressure in Pa
D = ISA density in kg/m3
H = ISA geopotential altitude in km

One way to determine the altitude at which a certain density occurs is to rewrite the equations and
solve for the variable H, which is the geopotential altitude.
So, it is now necessary to rewrite equations 9, 10, and 11 in a manner which expresses altitude H as
a function of density D. After a bit of gnashing of teeth and general turmoil using algebraic
substitutions of those three equations, the exact solution for H as a function of D, may be written as:

(12)

Using the numerical values of the ISA constants, that expression may be evaluated as:

where H = geopotential altitude, km


D = air density, kg/m3

Now that H is known as a function of D, it is easy to solve for the Density Altitude of any specified air
density.
It is interesting to note that equations 9, 10 and 11 could also be evaluated to find H as a function of P
as follows:

where H = geopotential altitude, km


P = actual air pressure, Pascals

Now that we can determine the altitude for a given density, it may be useful to consider some of the
definitions of altitude.

Different Flavors of Altitude:


There are three commonly used varieties of altitude (see ref 4).
They are:
Geometric altitude,
Geopotential altitude
and Pressure altitude.
Geometric altitude is what you would measure with a tape measure, while the
Geopotential altitude is a mathematical description based on the potential energy of
an object in the earth's gravity. Pressure altitude is what an altimeter displays when
set to 29.92.
The ISA equations use geopotential altitude, because that makes the equations much simpler and
more manageable. To convert the result from the geopotential altitude H to the geometric altitude Z,
the following formula may be used:

(13)
where E = 6356.766 km, the radius of the earth (for 1976 ISA)
H = geopotential altitude, km
Z = geometric altitude, km

Density Altitude Calculator:


The following calculator uses equation 12 to convert an input value of air density to the corresponding
altitude in the 1976 International Standard Atmosphere. Then, the results are displayed as both
geopotential altitude and geometric altitude, which are very nearly identical at lower altitudes.
Note that since these equations are designed to model the troposphere, this calculator will give an
error message if the calculated value of altitude is beyond the bounds of the troposphere, which
extends from sea level up to a geopotential altitude of 11 km.

Density Altitude Calculator 1


Air Density
Reset

kg/m3

Geopotential altitude H

Geometric altitude Z

m
by Richard Shelquist

Here's a calculator that uses the actual pressure, air temperature and dew point to
calculate the air density as well as the corresponding density altitude:

Density Altitude Calculator 2


Air Temperature

degrees C

Actual Air Pressure

mb

Dew Point

degrees C

Reset

Air Density

kg/m3

Geopotential altitude H

Geometric altitude Z

m
by Richard Shelquist

Density Altitude calculations using Virtual Temperature:


As an alternative to the use of equations which describe the atmosphere as being made up of a
combination of dry air and water vapor, it is possible to define a virtual temperature for an atmosphere
of only dry air.
The virtual temperature is the temperature that dry air would have if its pressure and specific volume
were equal to those of a given sample of moist air. It's often easier to use virtual temperature in place
of the actual temperature to account for the effect of water vapor while continuing to use the gas
constant for dry air.
The results should be exactly the same as in the previous method, this is just an alternative method.

There are two steps in this scheme: first calculate the virtual temperature and then
use that temperature in the corresponding altitude equation.
The equation for virtual temperature may be derived by manipulation of the density equation that was
presented earlier as equation 4a:

Recalling that P = Pd + Pv, which means that Pd = P - Pv, the equation may be rewritten as

Finally, a new temperature Tv, the virtual temperature, is defined such that

By evaluating the numerical values of the constants, setting Pv = E, noting that Rd = R*1000/Md and
that Rv=R*1000/Mv, then the virtual temperature may be expressed as:

(14)
where Tv = virtual temperature, deg K
T = ambient temperature, deg K
c1 = ( 1 - (Mv / Md ) ) = 0.37800
E = vapor pressure, mb
P = actual (station) pressure, mb
where Md is molecular weight of dry air = 28.9644
Mv is molecular weight of water = 18.016
(Note that for convenience, the units in Equation 14 are not purely SI units, but rather are US
customary units for the vapor pressure and station pressure.)

The following calculator uses equation 6 to find the vapor pressure, then calculates
the virtual temperature using equation 14:

Virtual Temperature Calculator


Air Temperature

degrees C

Actual Air Pressure

mb

Dew Point

degrees C

Reset

Virtual Temperature

degrees C
by Richard Shelquist

The virtual temperature Tv may used in the following formula to calculate the density altitude. This
formula is simply a rearrangement of equations 9, 10 and 11:

(15)

Using the numerical values of the ISA constants, equation 15 may be rewritten using the virtual
temperature as:

where H = geopotential density altitude, km


Tv = virtual temperature, deg K
P = actual (station) pressure, Pascals

Using the Altimeter Setting:


When the actual pressure is not known, the altimeter reading may be used to
determine the actual pressure. (For more information about ambient air pressure
measurements see the pressure measurement page.)
The altimeter setting is the value in the Kollsman window of an altimeter when the altimeter is
adjusted to read the correct altitude. The altimeter setting is generally included in National Weather
Service reports, and can be used to determine the actual pressure using the following equations:
According to NWS ASOS documentation, the actual pressure Pa is related to the altimeter setting AS
by the following equation:

(16)
By numerically evaluating the constants and converting to customary units of altitude and pressure,
the equation may be written as:
Pa = [ASk1 - ( k2 * H ) ]1/k1
where Pa = actual (station) pressure, mb
AS = altimeter setting, mb
H = geopotential station elevation, m
k1 = 0.190263
k2 = 8.417286*10-5

When converted to English units, this is the relationship between station pressure and altimeter
setting that is used by the National Weather Service ASOS weather stations (see ref 10 ) as:
Pa = [AS0.1903 - (1.313 x 10-5) x H]5.255
where Pa = actual (station) pressure, inches Hg
AS = altimeter setting, inches Hg
H = station elevation, feet
(Note: several other equations for converting actual pressure to altimeter setting are given in ref 12.)
Using these equations, the altimeter setting may be readily converted to actual pressure, then by
using the actual pressure along with the temperature and dew point, the local air density may be
calculated, and finally the density may be used to determine the corresponding density altitude.
Given the values of the altimeter setting (the value in the Kollsman window) and the altimeter reading
(the geometric altitude), the following calculator will convert the altitude to geopotential altitude, and
solve equation 16 for the actual pressure at that altitude.

Altimeter Values to Actual Pressure


Altimeter Setting

hPa (mb)

Altimeter Reading

meters

Reset

Geopotential Altitude

meters

Actual Pressure

hPa (mb)
by Richard Shelquist

Using National Weather Service Barometric Pressure:


Now you're probably wondering about converting sea-level corrected barometric pressure, as
reported in a weather forecast, to actual air pressure for use in calculating density altitude. Well the
good news is that yes, sea level barometric pressure can be converted to actual air pressure. The
bad news is that the result may not be very accurate.
If you want accurate density or density altitude calculations, you really need to know the actual air
pressure.
In order to compare surface pressures from various parts of the country, the National Weather
Service converts the actual air pressure reading into a sea level corrected barometric pressure. In
that way, the common reference to sea level pressure readings allows surface features such as
pressure changes to be more easily understood.
But, unfortunately, there really is no fool-proof way to convert the actual air pressure to a sea level
corrected value. There are a number of such algorithms currently in use, but they all suffer from
various problems that can occasionally cause inaccurate results (see ref 7).
It has been estimated that the errors in the sea level pressure reading (in mb) may be on the order of
1.5 times the temperature error for a station like Denver at 1640 meters. So, if the temperature error
was 10 deg C, then the sea level pressure conversion might occasionally be in error by 15 mb. At the
very highest airports such as Leadville, Colorado at an elevation of 3026 meters (9927 ft), perhaps
the error might be on the order of 30 mb.
And further complicating matters, without knowing the details of the algorithm that was used to
calculate the sea level pressure, it is likely that there will be some additional error introduced in the
process of converting the sea level pressure back to the desired actual station pressure.
These error estimates are probably on the extreme side, but it seems reasonable to say that the
density altitude calculations made using the National Weather Service sea level pressure calculations
may have an uncertainty of 10% or more.
When using pressure data from the National Weather Service, be certain to find out if the pressure is
the altimeter setting or the sea-level corrected pressure. They may be quite different in some
situations.

Simpler Methods of Calculation...

If you really want to know the actual density altitude, it will need to be calculated in the general
manner that has been described above. However, there are simple approximations which have been
developed over the years.
For example, a particularly convenient form of density altitude approximation is obtained by simply
ignoring the actual moisture content in the air. Here is such an equation which has been used by the
National Weather Service (see ref 13) to calculate the approximate density altitude without any need
to know the humidity, dew point or vapor pressure:

17)
where: DA = density altitude, feet
Pa = actual pressure (station pressure), inches Hg
Tr = temperature, deg R (deg F + 459.67)
This simplified equation (17) is, basically, just equation (12) rewritten in US customary units with no
pressure contribution due to water vapor pressure.
The following calculator can be used to compare the results of the accurate calculations (in geometric
altitude, as described earlier on this web page) with the results from the preceding simplified
equation:

Comparison of
Actual versus Simplified
Density Altitude
Air Temperature

degrees F

Actual Air Pressure

inches-Hg

Dew Point

degrees F

Reset

Air Density

kg/m3

Actual Density Altitude

feet

Simplified Density Altitude

feet

by Richard Shelquist

The results for dry air (very low dew point) are nearly identical, while the greatest
errors in the simplified equation are when there is a lot of water vapor in the air, i.e.
high temperature accompanied by a high dew point.
To explore the effects of water vapor, consider, for example, a hypothetical ambient temperature of
95 deg F, with a dew point of 95 deg, at an altitude of 5050 feet and an altimeter setting of 29.45 , the
actual air pressure would be 24.445 in-Hg and the actual Density Altitude would be 9753 feet, while
the simplified equation gives a result of 8933 feet.... an error of 820 feet. The actual air density in this
case would be reduced by about 3%, compared to dry air.
Or, for a hypothetical 95 deg F foggy day at sea level, with a dew point of 95 deg F and an altimeter
setting of 29.92, the actual density altitude is 2988 ft, while the simplified equation gives a result of
2294 ft... an error of 694 ft. Similar to the previous example, the actual air density in this would be
reduced by about 3%, compared to dry air.
Those examples are quite extreme, but in actual practice it is quite common to see errors on the
order of 200 to 400 ft along the sea coast and in the sweltering mid-west, which may be
inconsequential, or may be significant, depending upon your specific situation.
So, if you don't mind some error when the air has a lot of water vapor, then the simplified equation,
which is much easier to calculate, may suit your needs.
But if you really want the utmost accuracy in determining the density altitude, then you'll have to deal
with the gory details of vapor pressure and compute the "real" density altitude.
Based on the reported observations from a variety of US airports, it appears that the ASOS and
AWOS-3 automated weather observation systems (which report weather conditions including density
altitude at many airports in the US) use a simplified equation which gives essentially the same results
as equation 17 above. That is, it appears that the current ASOS/AWOS density altitude does not
account for effects of moisture in the air.
You can compare the actual Density Altitude with the ASOS/AWOS-3 reported values using the
calculator at: Density Altitude Calculator - with selectable units.
However, before you get too distressed by such seemingly "sloppy" ASOS/AWOS calculations, keep
in mind that the International Standard Atmosphere is merely a conceptual model which may or may
not accurately represent the conditions at any given location on any given day. That is, "density
altitude" and "standard atmosphere" are theoretical concepts which are based upon a number of
assumptions about the atmosphere, and may or may not accurately depict the actual physical
conditions at any actual location, no matter how accurate the calculations may be.
Actually, it would be far more meaningful, useful and precise if ASOS/AWOS reported the actual air
density in kg/m3, and if the performance data in pilot's handbooks was also expressed in terms of
actual air density in kg/m3. But that's not what is currently done. Currently, data in terms of "altitude"
and "density altitude" are generally what we're given. That's a pity.
Hopefully, someday all of the aircraft performance tables/charts and weather reporting systems will
be expressed in terms of the actual air density and thereby avoid this arcane concept of density
altitude... but, for now, we're stuck with "density altitude".

If we really want to be precise and consistent, we should be using the actual air density, not this
theoretical quantity called density altitude.

Density Altitude Calculation Algorithm...


For those who want to do their own density altitude calculations, here's a list of the steps performed
by my on-line Density Altitude Calculator :
1. convert ambient temperature to deg C,
2. convert geometric (survey) altitude to geopotential altitude in meters,
3. convert dew point to deg C,
4. convert altimeter setting to mb.
5. calculate the saturation vapor pressure, given the ambient temperature
6. calculate the actual vapor pressure given the dew point temperature
7. use geopotential altitude and altimeter setting to calculate the absolute pressure in mb,
8. use absolute pressure, vapor pressure and temp to calculate air density in kg/m3,
9. use the density to find the ISA altitude in meters which has that same density,
10. convert the ISA geopotential altitude to geometric altitude in meters,
11. convert the geometric altitude into the desired units and display the results.

My On-Line Density Altitude and Engine Tuner's Calculators:


Click here for Density Altitude Calculator using dew point.
Click here for Density Altitude Calculator using relative humidity
Click here for Engine Tuner's Calculator which includes air density, density altitude, relative
horsepower, virtual temperature, absolute pressure, vapor pressure, relative humidity and dyno
correction factor.

enjoy....
Richard Shelquist
Longmont, Colorado

References:
1. List, R.J. (editor), 1958, Smithsonian Meteorological Tables, Smithsonian Institute, Washington,
D.C.
2. Thermodynamic subroutines by Schlatter and Baker .... lots of Fortran algorithms and excellent
references

3. El Paso National Weather Service ... weather related formulas


4. http://mtp.mjmahoney.net/www/notes/altitude/altitude.html ... different flavors of altitude explained
6. Archived copy of Rotax Service Bulletin 8UL87
7. NOAA article ... clearing confusion over sea level pressure analysis
8. DigitalDutch online unit converter ... conversion factors
9. SI conversion factors from NIST ... Factors for Units Listed Alphabetically
10. NOAA Altimeter Setting equation ... (or see The Automated Surface Observing System (ASOS)
Algorithm Tutorial ).
11. NASA article about saturation vapor pressure ... shows several algorithms
12. There are some additional altimeter setting algorithms available at:
World Meteorological Organization, Instruments and Observing Methods (pdf)
as well as: Altimeter setting equations, NWS El Paso (pdf)
Also see uWxUtils Source Code... weather equations, including additional methods for converting
station pressure to altimeter setting.
13. Precision Digital Barometer Spec .. PDF file... National Weather Service document that includes
equations for altimeter setting, and a simple approximation for density altitude.
14. For more details about the effects of non-ideal compressibility and vapor pressure not measured
over liquid water, see Techniques and Topics in Flow Measurement, Frank E. Jones, p37 and also
Comit International des Poids et Mesures CIPM-2007 (or CIPM-81/89). PDF file of Revised
Formula (CIPM-2007) To convert the CIPM-2007 density to the forms given in my equation 4a and
4b, note that Xv = RH * f * Psv/P, with RH = Pv/Psv. Let f = 1, which then gives Xv = Pv/P. Then let
Z=1, and simply rearrange the equation to yield the forms given in my 4a and 4b.
15. Evaporation into the Atmosphere, Wilfried Brutsaert, p37. (PDF excerpt)
16. 1976 International Standard Atmosphere (PDF file)

Some related web links:


NASA Humidity Equations ... another useful reference
DigitalDutch online ISA calculator ... able to make tables and graphs.
El Paso NWS - calculators ... atmospheric calculators using Tim Brice's cgi scripts
USA Today weather info ... lots of pages of weather related info and formulas

Copyright 1998-2015, All Rights Reserved, Richard Shelquist, Shelquist Engineering.