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An Introduction to Air Density and Density Altitude Calculations

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and

Density Altitude Calculations

updated: 1 Mar 2015

copyright 1998 - 2015 Richard Shelquist

(from http://wahiduddin.net/calc/density_altitude.htm )

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

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.

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.....

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.

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

(4a)

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:

Air Temperature:

degrees C

Reset

mb

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.

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

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

Pascals)

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.

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

RH = relative humidity (expressed as a decimal value)

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

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.

absolute pressure, or station pressure) is the sum of the pressure of the

dry air and the vapor pressure:

(8a)

P = Pd + Pv

Pd = pressure due to dry air

Pv = pressure due to water vapor

(8b)

Pd = P - Pv

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.

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 Temperature

degrees C

mb

Dew Point

degrees C

Reset

Air Density

kg/m3

by Richard Shelquist

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.

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)

Horsepower

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.

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:

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.

correction factor.

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.

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:

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.

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.

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.

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)

(11)

where:

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:

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:

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.

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

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.

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:

Air Temperature

degrees C

mb

Dew Point

degrees C

Reset

Air Density

kg/m3

Geopotential altitude H

Geometric altitude Z

m

by Richard Shelquist

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:

Air Temperature

degrees C

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:

Tv = virtual temperature, deg K

P = actual (station) pressure, Pascals

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 Setting

hPa (mb)

Altimeter Reading

meters

Reset

Geopotential Altitude

meters

Actual Pressure

hPa (mb)

by Richard Shelquist

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.

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

inches-Hg

Dew Point

degrees F

Reset

Air Density

kg/m3

feet

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.

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.

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

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)

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

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