How do we measure air temperature?

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An ice beacon monitoring air temperature and pressure and ice drift. April 1, 2007. (Credit: Collection of Dr. Pablo Clemente-Colon, Chief Scientist National Ice Center. NOAA/NWS)

Air consists of gas molecules, which are combinations of two or more atoms. Although you cannot see them with your eyes, the molecules are constantly moving this way and that at very high speeds. As they move, they collide with one another and with solid surfaces. The temperature of the air is a measure of how quickly the molecules are moving. The more energy of motion the molecules have, the higher the temperature you feel in the air.

Air temperature is measured with thermometers. Common thermometers consist of a glass rod with a very thin tube in it. The tube contains a liquid that is supplied from a reservoir, or "bulb," at the base of the thermometer. Sometimes the liquid is mercury, and sometimes it is red-colored alcohol. As the temperature of the liquid in the bulb rises, the liquid expands. As the liquid expands, it rises up in the tube. The tube is marked with a scale, in degrees Fahrenheit or in degrees Celsius.

When you are measuring the air temperature, be sure to have the thermometer in the shade. If the sun shines on the thermometer, it heats the liquid. Then the reading is higher than the true air temperature. Also, when you take the thermometer outside, give it enough time to adjust to the outdoor air temperature. That might take several minutes.