What Does a Barometer Do: Understanding Its Role in Pressure Measurement

Barometers are instruments used to measure atmospheric pressure. They work by measuring the weight of the air pressing down on a column of mercury or using other methods such as aneroid cells. In this article, we will explore the function of barometers, the different types available, and their applications in various fields.

Understanding the Function of a Barometer

Atmospheric pressure is the force exerted by the weight of the Earth’s atmosphere on any given area. It is caused by the mass of air molecules above a given point on the Earth’s surface pressing down on that point. Hence, its magnitude decreases with increasing altitude because there is less air above to exert pressure.

what does a barometer do

It is typically measured in units such as atmospheres (atm), millimeters of mercury (mmHg), or pascals (Pa). Standard atmospheric pressure at sea level is approximately 1 atmosphere (atm), which is equivalent to about 101.3 kilopascals (kPa) or 760 millimeters of mercury (mmHg).

It is important to monitor atmospheric pressure because it influences weather patterns, ocean currents, and the behavior of gases. Changes in atmospheric pressure can signal approaching weather systems, such as high or low-pressure systems, which impact temperature, precipitation, and wind patterns.

The instrument used to measure atmospheric pressure is called a barometer. There are various types of barometers based on their operation. The most common types include mercury barometers, aneroid barometers, and digital barometers.

Types of Barometers

Mercury Barometers

Mercury barometers measure atmospheric pressure using a column of mercury. Evangelista Torricelli is credited with creating the first mercury barometer in the 17th century.

The basic construction consists of a glass tube, about 1 meter in length, closed at one end and filled with mercury. This tube is then inverted into a mercury-filled basin. The weight of the mercury creates a vacuum in the top of the tube.

Mercury Barometer

When atmospheric pressure rises, it exerts greater force on the mercury in the basin, causing the mercury inside the tube to rise. Conversely, when atmospheric pressure decreases, the mercury level falls. The height of the mercury column, usually expressed in millimeters or inches of mercury, indicates the atmospheric pressure.

The mercury level in the basin is set to a standard position before taking a reading and correction factors are applied to account for variations in mercury density due to temperature.

Mercury barometers were commonly used in the past for weather forecasting and are still used in some scientific and meteorological applications, although they have largely been replaced by electronic devices such as aneroid barometers due to safety concerns associated with mercury exposure.

Aneroid Barometers

An aneroid barometer is a device used for measuring atmospheric pressure without the use of fluids. It typically consists of a sealed, flexible metal box known as an aneroid cell. This cell is designed to expand and contract with changes in atmospheric pressure.

The aneroid cell is made from an alloy that is sensitive to pressure changes. These movements are mechanically amplified by a series of levers and springs that transfer the expansion or contraction to a pointer, which moves over a calibrated scale to indicate atmospheric pressure, as shown in the diagram below.

Aneroid Barometer

For enhanced precision, a vernier scale may be employed. The internal mechanics are enclosed within a protective casing, often paired with a transparent cover to allow easy reading of measurements.

Aneroid barometers are utilized in various applications such as meteorology, aviation, and for recreational purposes like hiking. By recording pressure changes, they assist in forecasting weather changes as air pressure influences and often predicts weather conditions. Devices incorporating aneroid barometers include altimeters in aircraft, portable weather instruments, and even household weather stations.

While generally less precise than their mercury counterparts, aneroid barometers do offer the advantage of being more portable and safer to handle. It is important to regularly calibrate aneroid barometers to maintain accuracy, as they can be affected by temperature changes and aging of the component materials.

Digital Barometers

Digital barometers utilize electronic components to measure atmospheric pressure. They are highly accurate, often incorporating microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) technology. These devices can come with single, dual, or triple transducers to offer redundancy and a wider range of measurement capabilities.

The sensing mechanism in a digital barometer involves the conversion of pressure into an electrical signal. This process typically utilizes a capacitive or piezoresistive pressure sensor. The data from these sensors are then digitized using an analog-to-digital converter (ADC), which facilitates easy integration with digital systems for monitoring and data logging.

Applications of Barometers


Meteorology often relies on barometric data as pressure changes are indicative of weather patterns. Forecasters utilize barometers to detect approaching storm systems or anticipate clear skies. Atmospheric pressure readings taken over time help meteorologists to build weather models and perform trend analysis that is critical in predicting future weather conditions.

Aerospace and Aviation

In aerospace and aviation, pilot altimeters are essentially barometers calibrated to read altitude based on pressure changes. Accurate barometric readings are important for maintaining proper aircraft altitude, enabling safe takeoffs and landings. Additionally, barometric sensors contribute to automated flight systems and are part of the redundancy checks for critical flight instruments.

Environmental Research

Environmental scientists employ barometers in monitoring and studying climate change, as long-term pressure data can reveal patterns in atmospheric behavior. This includes researching altitude-related climatic variations and contributing to models that predict the impact of air pressure changes on the environment.

Process Control

In industrial settings, barometers are used for process control to ensure that the conditions under which chemical reactions or product creations occur remain within prescribed parameters. They add a level of precision in processes where environmental conditions, such as pressure, directly affect the quality and safety of the outcomes.

Navigation and Sea-faring

Barometric pressure readings are instrumental in navigation and sea-faring. Mariners rely on barometric trends for early warning signs of potentially hazardous weather conditions at sea. Ships and submarines use these instruments as part of their standard navigational suites, facilitating safe and efficient passage planning.

Scroll to Top
Complete... 50%
Please enter your name and email address below to receive a link to the toolkit.

You’ll also receive regular tips to help you master Excel for engineering.



By Charlie Young, P.E.

Take your engineering to the next level with advanced Excel skills.