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Mountain High

March 9, 2017

Have you ever been to a high altitude and found yourself gasping for breath? One listener asked why that happens.



Thinning air. I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

Listener Sanjay of Mumbai, India wrote to ask why oxygen is so scarce at high elevations, like on Mount Everest. We asked NASA physicist Stephen Merkowitz to explain. He says it’s not just oxygen that’s rare up there – all of the gases that make up our atmosphere are scarcer. Down at sea level, there’s lots of atmosphere above us, pushing down and making our air denser.


As you go higher and higher in altitude, as you climb a mountain, say, there’s less atmosphere above you, so there’s less air pushing down on you, which makes the air thinner.


And thinner air means less oxygen per breath than our bodies are used to. If you have a science question, call us at 1-800-WHY-ISIT. If we use it on the show, we’ll send you a Science Update mug. I’m Bob Hirshon for AAAS, the science society.

Written by Science Update staff