how cold does it get up a mountain

Air raising

Small waves seen from Lindisfarne

How do clouds form? How does temperature vary with altitude, and what does coffee have to do with any of it?

You put a drop of alcohol on your hand and feel your hand get cooler as the alcohol evaporates, but what has this to do with coffee, climate and physics?

Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802) was the grandfather of Charles of “Origin of the Species” fame. As a member of the Lunar Society (so-called because the members used to meet on evenings on which there was a full moon so that they could continue their discussions into the night and still see their way home) he would conduct all sorts of scientific experiments and propose various imaginative inventions. Other members of the Lunar Society included Matthew Boulton, Josiah Wedgwood and Joseph Priestley. The society was a great example of what can happen when a group of people who are interested in how things work get together and investigate things, partly just for the sake of it.

One of the things that Darwin had noticed was that when ether* evaporates from your hand, it cools it down, just as alcohol does. Darwin considered that in order to evaporate, the ether (or alcohol or even water) needed the heat that was provided by his hand, hence his hand started to feel cooler. But then he considered the corollary, if water (ether or alcohol) were to condense, would it not give off heat? He started to form an explanation of how clouds form: As moist air rises, it cools and expands until the moisture in the air starts to condense into droplets, clouds.

hole in water alcohol

There are several cool things you can notice with evaporating alcohol. Here a hole has been created in a thin layer of coffee by evaporating some gin. You can see the video of the effect here.

As with many such ideas, we can do a ‘back of the envelope’ calculation to see if Darwin could be correct, which is where we could also bring in coffee. The arabica growing regions are in the “bean belt” between 25 °N and 30 °S. In the sub-tropical region of that belt, between about 16-24°, the arabica is best grown at an altitude between 550-1100 m (1800-3600 ft). In the more equatorial regions (< 10º), the arabica is grown between 1100-1920m (3600-6300 ft). It makes sense that in the hotter, equatorial regions, the arabica needs to be grown at higher altitude so that the air is cooler, but can we calculate how much cooler it should be and then compare to how much cooler it is?

We do this by assuming that we can define a parcel of air that we will allow to rise (in our rough calculation of what is going on)¹. We assume that the parcel stays intact as it rises but that its temperature and pressure can vary as they would for an ideal gas. Assuming that the air parcel does not encounter friction as it rises (so we have a reversible process), what we are left with is that the rate of change of temperature with height (dT/dz) is given by the ratio of the gravitational acceleration (g) to the specific heat of the air at constant pressure (Cp) or, to express it mathematically:

dT/dz = -g/Cp = Γa

Γa is known as the adiabatic lapse rate and because it only depends on the gravitational acceleration and the specific heat of the gas at constant pressure (which we know/can measure), we can calculate it exactly. For dry air, the rate of change of temperature with height for an air parcel is -9.8 Kelvin/Km.

contrail, sunset

Contrails are caused by condensing water droplets behind aeroplanes.

So, a difference in mountain height of 1000 m would lead to a temperature drop of 9.8 ºC. Does this explain why coffee grows in the hills of Mexico at around 1000 m but the mountains of Columbia at around 1900 m? Not really. If you take the mountains of Columbia as an example, the average temperature at 1000 m is about 24ºC all year, but climb to 2000 m and the temperature only drops to 17-22ºC. How can we reconcile this with our calculation?

Firstly of course we have not considered microclimate and the heating effects of the sides or plateaus of the mountains together with the local weather patterns that will form in different regions of the world. But we have also missed something slightly more fundamental in our calculation, and something that will take us back to Erasmus Darwin: the air is not dry.

Specific heat is the amount of energy that is required to increase the temperature of a substance by one degree. Dry air has a different specific heat to that of air containing water vapour and so the adiabatic lapse rate (g/Cp) will be different. Additionally however we have Erasmus Darwin’s deduction from his ether: water vapour that condenses into water droplets will release heat. Condensing water vapour out of moist air will therefore affect the adiabatic lapse rate and, because there are now droplets of water in our air parcel, there will be clouds. When we calculate the temperature variation with height for water-saturated air, it is as low as 0.5 ºC/100 m (or 5 K/Km), more in keeping with the variations that we observe in the coffee growing regions†.

We have gone from having our head in the clouds and arrived back at our observations of evaporating liquids. It is fascinating what Erasmus Darwin was able to deduce about the way the world worked from what he noticed in his every-day life. Ideas that he could then either calculate, or experiment with to test. We have very varied lives and very varied approaches to coffee brewing. What will you notice? What will you deduce? How can you test it?


*ether could refer to a number of chemicals but given that Erasmus Darwin was a medical doctor, is it possible that the ether he refers to was the ether that is used as an anaesthetic?

†Though actually we still haven’t accounted for microclimate/weather patterns and so it is still very much a ‘rough’ calculation. The calculation would be far better tested by using weather balloons etc. as indeed it has been.

¹The calculation can be found in “Introduction to Atmospheric Physics”, David Andrews, Cambridge University Press