National Physical Laboratory

I feel 'lighter' when up a mountain but am I? (FAQ - Mass & Density)

Yes but not enough to notice.

If you attempt to compare your weight at sea level with its value up a mountain there are two important effects that need to be taken into account if the comparison is to be meaningful - gravity and air density.

Weight is the gravitational force acting on a body (literally in this case!) and the value of the gravitational force changes with latitude (the Earth is not spherical) but also with height above sea level - or more accurately with distance from the centre of mass of the Earth. It changes by roughly 0.3 parts per million per metre (see cautionary note 1 below), so a change in height of, say, 3 000 m would reduce the gravitational force, and hence your weight, by about 900 parts per million (~0.1% in more round-figures). Thus if you weigh around 70 kg your weight would be about 0.07 kg less at 3 000 m.

But this is a weight loss rather than a mass loss and if you try to measure it using a properly set-up balance you will not detect it. If the balance is of the two-pan variety, or a single-pan balance used as a comparator, the weight-loss - through reduced gravitational acceleration - will apply equally to both you and to the reference mass against which you were being compared and would thus cancel-out. If a single-pan balance was used in direct reading mode, its scale should effectively have been compensated for the different value of g, through the setting-up and calibration process - involving the use of known masses (and mass does not change with g). A weight loss would thus only be apparent when weighing at altitude using a single-pan balance, in direct reading mode, that had not been properly set-up or calibrated since moving it from ground level.

The second effect is due to the density of the air; at greater heights the air is less dense, or thinner, due to its reduced pressure (air density depends on air pressure, temperature and humidity) and whilst this does not affect your weight - the gravitational force acting on you - it will affect your buoyancy which in turn affects the weighing process.

The density of air at sea level is nominally 1.2 kg/m3; it reduces very roughly by 1 part in 10 000 per metre increase in altitude (again see cautionary note 1 below) so at 3 000 m its density will be something over about 0.8 kg/m3. To know what effect this has on the weighing (not weight) of a person we need to know their volume. Assuming a corporal density of 1 000 kg/m3 (humans are more-or-less neutrally buoyant in water of this density) and knowing that volume is mass/density, the volume of our 70 kg 'standard' (!) person would be around 0.07 m3. Therefore the reduction in buoyancy at 3 000 m would be about [0.07 × (1.2 - 0.8)] kg - that is around 0.03 kg.

So, within the assumptions and approximations stated, at an altitude of 3000 m

  • the weight of a 70 kg person would reduce by about 0.07 kg
  • this reduction is in weight, not mass
  • the weight reduction would not be detected by a properly set-up and calibrated balance but your leg muscles would have marginally less work to do in moving you around
  • reduced buoyancy would be detected by the balance (making you appear to be heavier than you would otherwise be by about 0.03 kg) but, by definition, this would not be a weight increase and the buoyancy correction should be added algebraically [see note 2 below] to your measured weight
  • the reduced buoyancy would cause your leg muscles to have to work slightly harder.

In summary

  • you would have the same mass but slightly less weight
  • the effect would not be detected by a properly set up balance
  • about half the 'gain' in reduced muscle effort would be cancelled out because of reduced air buoyancy

Of course, if you climb the mountain under your own steam rather than using a cable car you may genuinely lose mass (and hence 'really' lose weight) and this would be detectable with a balance; provided you did not eat too much on the descent it would not reappear afterwards!

Notes

  1. Gravitational attraction and air density vary non-linearly with altitude; the figures used above do not take this into account and have been used for illustrative purposes only.
  2. Although the buoyancy correction is added algebraically, in this example it has a negative value so 'adding' it therefore leads to a lower value of weight.
Last Updated: 25 Mar 2010
Created: 8 Oct 2007

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