Why is there always snow on mountaintops, even if the weather in the valley is not cold? — GV, El Paso, Texas
The atmosphere maintains a natural temperature gradient of about 10° C (which is equivalent to 18° F) per kilometer in dry air and about 6 or 7° C (which is equivalent to about 12° F) per kilometer in moist air. The higher you look in the lower atmosphere, the colder the air is. Because of this gradient, it may be 20° C (68° F) in the valley and 0° C (32° F) at the top of a 2,000 meter high mountain.
This temperature gradient has its origin in the physics of gases—when a gas expands and does work on its surroundings, its temperature decreases. To see why this effect is important, imagine that you have a plastic bag that’s partially filled with valley air. If you carry this bag up the side of the mountain, you will find that the bag’s volume will gradually increase. That’s because there will be less and less air overhead as you climb and the pressure that this air exerts on the bag will diminish. With less pressure keeping it small, the air in the bag will expand and the bag will fill up more and more. But for the bag’s size to increase, it must push the air around it out of the way. Pushing this air away takes work and energy, and this energy comes from the valley air inside the bag. Since the valley air has only one form of energy it can give up—thermal energy—its temperature decreases as it expands. By the time you reach the top of the mountain, your bag of valley air will have cooled dramatically. If it started at 20° C, its temperature may have dropped to 0° C, cold enough for snow.
If you now turn around and walk back down the mountain, the increasing air pressure will gradually squeeze your bag of valley air back down to its original size. In doing do, the surrounding air will do work on your valley air, giving it energy, and will increase that air’s thermal energy—the valley air will warm up! When you reach the valley, the air in your bag will have returned to its original temperature.
Air often rises and falls in the atmosphere and, as it does, it experiences these same changes in temperature. Air cools as it blows up into the mountains (often causing rain to form) and warms as it flows down out of the mountains (producing dry mountain winds). These effects maintain a temperature gradient in the atmosphere that allows snow to remain on mountaintops even when it’s relatively warm in the valleys.