Clearly, Mitt Romney needs a quick lesson on air pressure


Being in the public eye isn't easy, especially when you're in the running for president of the United States. So I do feel bad for Mitt Romney when he makes yet another gaffe that people rake him over the coals with. However, this latest one, about why airplane windows don't roll down, not only hits close to home for me — as a scientist and a meteorologist — but also shows such a basic ignorance of science that it's baffling.

Last Friday, the plane his wife was flying on had to make an emergency landing in Denver, Colo., after smoke filled the cabin. Several news sources, including CNN and Reuters, reported that it was apparently due to an electrical fire. They landed safely and everyone was fine. It's a scary thing, though, when your plane cabin fills with smoke, so I can understand Mitt's concern.

The next day, at a fundraiser in Beverly Hills, he told the audience about the incident.

"When you have a fire in an aircraft, there's no place to go, exactly, there's no — and you can't find any oxygen from outside the aircraft to get in the aircraft, because the windows don't open. I don't know why they don't do that. It's a real problem. So it's very dangerous." he said.

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I have to grant him two of his points. It is a real problem, and it is dangerous. However, opening up the window of an airplane while it's in flight would be even more of a problem, and even more dangerous.

One of the first lessons learned about our atmosphere is about air pressure and how it gets lower the higher up you go. There's some variation based on weather patterns, but in general that's due how gravity effects the density of the air. Every molecule of air is subject to the Earth's gravitational pull, and gravity keeps most of the atmosphere closer to the surface. That gives us an air pressure of around 100 kilopascals (kPa), which is good for us, because we need a certain level of atmospheric pressure in order to breathe.

The tolerances of the human body to changes in air pressure have been well-documented. Going above altitudes of 2100 metres already starts to cause problems with oxygen levels in the bloodstream, but the body has ways of adapting. However, higher than 8000 metres has been called the 'Death Zone', where the temperature is around -35 degrees C, the air pressure is only around 35 kPa and oxygen levels are not high enough to support human life.

Passenger jets fly at an altitude of about 11,000 metres. At that height, the temperature is about -56 degrees C (which doesn't include the wind-chill factor there would be due to flying at over 800 km/h) and the atmospheric pressure has dropped to nearly 20 kPa. The plane cabin is kept comfortable for the passengers by pressurizing it to the normal 100 kPa.

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Opening a window would immediately depressurize the cabin and subject everyone to temperatures that can freeze skin within 30 seconds. Factor wind-chill into that and skin can freeze nearly instantaneously.

So, yes, that's a real problem, and it's certainly very dangerous.

Now, Romney is no scientist, but you don't even need a science degree to know this kind of stuff. Movies and television shows have featured this kind of scenario many times, at least showing the effects of opening a door or breaking the window on a jet in flight.

Rachel Maddow, from MSNBC said, on her show on Monday: "So has he never seen Goldfinger?"

I would add: Has he never seen William Shatner in The Twilight Zone?