Pressure Belts of the Earth

The distribution of atmospheric pressure across the latitudes is termed global horizontal distribution of pressure. Its main feature is its zonal character known as pressure belts. This is an important topic to study for candidates, as this is a part of the UPSC geography syllabus.

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Pressure Belts of Earth

On the earth’s surface, there are seven pressure belts. They are the Equatorial Low, the two Subtropical highs, the two Subpolar lows, and the two Polar highs. Except for the Equatorial low, the others form matching pairs in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres. There is a pattern of alternate high and low-pressure belts over the earth. This is due to the spherical shape of the earth—different parts of the earth are heated unequally. The Equatorial region receives a great amount of heat throughout the year. Warm air being light, the air at the Equator rises, creating low pressure. At the poles the cold heavy air causes high pressure to be created/formed. It is also due to the rotation of the earth. In the Subpolar region around latitudes 60° to 65° North and South of the Equator, the rotation of the earth pushes up the bulk of the air towards the Equator, creating a low-pressure belt in this region.

(i) Equatorial Low-Pressure Belts

This low-pressure belt extends from 0 to 5° North and South of Equator. Due to the vertical rays of the sun here, there is intense heating. The air, therefore, expands and rises as convection current causing low pressure to develop here. This low-pressure belt is also called as doldrums because it is a zone of total calm without any breeze.

(ii) Subtropical High-Pressure Belts

At about 30°North and South of Equator lies the area where the ascending equatorial air currents descend. This area is thus an area of high pressure. It is also called as the Horse latitude. Winds always blow from high pressure to low pressure. So the winds from subtropical region blow towards the Equator as Trade winds and another wind blow towards Sub-Polar Low-Pressure as Westerlies.

(iii) Circum-Polar Low-Pressure Belts

These belts located between 60° and 70° in each hemisphere are known as Circum-Polar Low-Pressure Belts. In the Subtropical region, the descending air gets divided into two parts. One part blows towards the Equatorial Low-Pressure Belt. The other part blows towards the Circum- Polar Low-Pressure Belt. This zone is marked by the ascent of warm Subtropical air over cold polar air blowing from poles. Due to the earth’s rotation, the winds surrounding the Polar region blow towards the Equator. Centrifugal forces operating in this region create the low-pressure belt appropriately called the Circumpolar Low-Pressure Belt. This region is marked by violent storms in winter.

(iv) Polar High-Pressure Areas

At the North and South Poles, between 70° to 90° North and South, the temperatures are always extremely low. The cold descending air gives rise to high pressures over the Poles. These areas of Polar high pressure are known as the Polar Highs. These regions are characterized by permanent Ice Caps.

Shifting Of Pressure Belts

If the earth had not been inclined towards the sun, the pressure belts, as described above, would have been as they are. But it is not so, because the earth is inclined 23 1/2° towards the sun. On account of this inclination, differences in heating of the continents, oceans, and pressure conditions in January and July vary greatly. January represents winter season and July, summer season in the Northern Hemisphere. Opposite conditions prevail in the Southern Hemisphere. When the sun is overhead on the Tropic of Cancer (21 June) the pressure belts shift 5° northward and when it shines vertically overhead on Tropic of Capricorn (22 December), they shift 5° southward from their original position. The shifting of the pressure belts causes seasonal changes in the climate, especially between latitudes 30° and 40° in both hemispheres. In this region, the Mediterranean type of climate is experienced because of the shifting of permanent belts southwards and northwards with the overhead position of the sun. During winters Westerlies prevail and cause rain. During summers dry Trade Winds blow offshore and are unable to give rainfall in these regions. When the sun shines vertically over the Equator on 21st March and 23rd September (the Equinoxes), the pressure belts remain balanced in both the hemispheres.

Thus, UPSC Geography is an important subject where students can excel and score the best possible marks in the examination. If you liked this article and would like to read more articles related to the subject of geography for the UPSC exams, you can check out the NCERT Geography Notes on Volcanoes.

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  1. Why the air ascends from equitorial low pressure to subtropical?

    • Air Circulation depends on heating of the earth surface by the sun and the rotation of the earth. At the equator, sun’s rays are almost vertical and the hot air being less dense, rises or ascends. Meanwhile, the cold dense air at the Poles sinks and moves towards the equator. At about 30 and 60 degrees latitudes in both North and South hemisphere, there is an accumulation of air due to the rotation of the earth. The cold air pushes the hot air upwards at the pockets of air buildup. There are three circulation cells – Hadley Cell, Ferrel Cell, and Polar Cell.