A Beginner's Guide to Understanding Ambient Air Temperature

'Ordinary' Air Temperature

Bird in Sun

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In weather, ambient temperature refers to the current air temperature —the overall temperature of the outdoor air that surrounds us. In other words, ambient air temperature is the same thing as "ordinary" air temperature. When indoors, ambient temperature is sometimes called room temperature.

When calculating the dew point temperature, the ambient temperature is also referred to as the dry-bulb temperature. The dry bulb temperature is a measure of the dry air temperature without evaporative cooling.

What Does Ambient Air Temperature Tell Us?

Unlike maximum high and minimum low temperatures, ambient air temperature tells you nothing about the weather forecast. It simply tells what the air temperature is right now, outside your door. As such, its value constantly changes minute-by-minute.

Do's and Dont's of Measuring Ambient Air Temperature

To measure the ambient air temperature, all you need is a thermometer and to follow these simple rules. Don't and you'll risk getting a "bad" temperature reading.

  • Keep the thermometer out of direct sunlight. If the sun is shining on your thermometer, it's going to record the heat from the sun, and not the ambient heat in the air. For this reason, always be careful to place thermometers in the shade.
  • Don't place your thermometer too low near the ground or too high above it. Too low, and it will pick up excess heat from the ground. Too high and it will cool from winds. A height of around five feet above ground works best.
  • Place the thermometer in an open, well-ventilated area. This keeps the air circulating freely around it, which means it will represent the temperature of the surrounding environment.
  • Keep the thermometer covered. Shielding it from the sun, rain, snow, and frost provides a standardized environment.
  • Place it over a natural (grassy or dirt) surface. Concrete, pavement, and stone attract and store heat, which they can then radiate towards your thermometer giving it a higher temperature reading than the actual environment.

Ambient vs. Apparent ("Feels-Like") Temperatures

Ambient temperature can provide a general idea of whether you will need a jacket or a sleeveless top, but it does not provide much information about how the weather will feel to an actual human being as she steps outside. That's because the ambient temperature doesn't take into account the relative humidity of the air or the impact of the wind on human perceptions of heat or cold. 

The amount of moisture (mugginess) or humidity in the air can make it harder for sweat to evaporate; this, in turn, will make you feel warmer. As a result, the heat index will increase even if the ambient air temperature will remain steady. This explains why dry heat is often less bothersome than moist heat.

Winds can play a role in how cold a temperature will feel to human skin. The wind chill factor can cause the air to have a perceived lower temperature. Thus, an ambient temperature of 30 degrees Fahrenheit can feel like 30 degrees, 20 degrees, or even ten degrees in a stiff breeze. 

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Oblack, Rachelle. "A Beginner's Guide to Understanding Ambient Air Temperature." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/what-is-ambient-air-temperature-3443637. Oblack, Rachelle. (2023, April 5). A Beginner's Guide to Understanding Ambient Air Temperature. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-ambient-air-temperature-3443637 Oblack, Rachelle. "A Beginner's Guide to Understanding Ambient Air Temperature." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-ambient-air-temperature-3443637 (accessed May 29, 2023).