National Weather Service United States Department of Commerce

Learning Lesson: A Pressing Engagement


We typically do not "feel" atmospheric air pressure. Why? Since air surrounds our bodies, and all things, the pressure, as a result of the air, is applied equally on all sides. For example, if someone holds an 8½x11" sheet of paper by their hand at arm's length, the weight of the air directly above the sheet is over 1,300 pounds.

Obviously, the paper does not weight that much. Why? That same pressure (14.7 pounds per square inch) is also pressing up on the bottom side of the paper. The equal pressure on all sides cancel each other out so all that is left is the weight of the material that comprises the paper.

Since we do not normally "feel" air pressure, the student will see how the effect of the air pressure on two sheets of paper.

TOTAL TIME 2 minutes
SUPPLIES Ruler; a sheet of printer paper; newspaper
SAFETY FOCUS Thunderstorm safety


  1. Lay a ruler on a table with about 3" (8 cm) hanging over the edge.
  2. Lay a sheet of printer paper on the part of the ruler in direct contact with the table.
  3. Press the paper against the table until it is flat as possible.
  4. Press down on part of the ruler hanging over the edge.
  5. Repeat the above steps except replace the printer paper with a large sheet of opened newspaper in the second step.


The student will discover the newspaper was much harder to lift than the printer paper. As the ruler lifted the printer paper, air rush in under the rising paper and thereby quickly allowed the air pressure to equalize on all sides. Essentially, the weight of the air above the paper had no effect on the difficulty in lifting the paper.

As the ruler lifted the newspaper, the edges of the newspaper remained in contact with the desk. Very little air was allowed to rush in and equalize the pressure on the bottom side of the newspaper. Since there is less air below the paper the pressure is less as well. Now the weight of all the air above the paper now becomes more evident.

Building a Weather-Ready Nation

The weight of molecules also affects the weather. One measure of the severity of a thunderstorm is the wind speed. In addition to the size of hail, the National Weather Service defines a severe thunderstorm as one containing wind speed of 58 mph (50 kt / 93 km/h) or greater.

The weight of all of the molecules in wind of 58 mph (50 kt / 93 km/h) is the force that can create hazardous weather conditions such a blowing down phone and power lines, trees, and make driving hazardous. When the National Weather Service issues a Severe Thunderstorm Warning it means a thunderstorm with wind gusts to at least 58 mph (50 kt / 93 km/h) and/or hail size of 1" (2.5 cm) or greater is occurring or about to occur near you.

Discuss severe thunderstorm safety with your family. Know where your safe rooms are. Know what to do in case all family members are not together. Preparing for a disaster ahead of time helps reduce fear and lets everyone know how to respond during a severe thunderstorm.

Take an American Red Cross first aid and CPR course to learn how to treat burns and administer CPR. You need to know how to respond in an emergency, because severe weather can strike almost anywhere in the country.