A fluid exerts a pressure on all bodies immersed in it. For a fluid at rest the difference in pressure between two points in it depends only upon the density of the fluid and the difference in depth between the two points. For example, a swimmer diving down in a lake can easily observe an increase in pressure with depth. For each meter (foot) increase in depth, the swimmer is subjected to an increase in pressure of 9,810 N per sq m (62.4 lb per sq ft), because water weighs 9,810 N per cu m (62.4 lb per cu ft). Since a liquid is nearly incompressible, its density does not change significantly with increasing depth. Therefore, the increase in pressure is caused solely by the increase in depth.
The variations in pressure of a gas are more complicated. For example, since air has such a low density compared to a liquid, a change in its pressure is only measurable between points that have a great height difference. The air pressure in a typical room is the same everywhere, but it is noticeably lower at the top of a mountain than at sea level. Because air is a gas, it is compressible. Its density decreases with increasing altitude. Thus changes in air pressure depend upon both the variations in the density of air and changes in the altitude at which it is measured. These two factors combine to reduce the air pressure at an altitude of 5,500 m (18,000 ft) to one half its value at sea level. Atmospheric (air) pressure at sea level will support a column of mercury that is about 76 cm (30 in.) high. The exact height varies with the weather. A unit called a standard atmosphere exerts a pressure equivalent to a column of mercury 76 cm high at sea level when the temperature is 0°C; it is equal to 101,300 N per sq m (14.7 lb per sq in.).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.