Pressure is defined as a force acting upon a particular area of matter. It is typically measured in pounds per square inch (psi) in the English system and Newton per square centimeter (N/cm2) in the System International (SI). Underwater pressure is a result of the weight of the water above the diver and the weight of the atmosphere over the water. There is one concept that must be remembered at all times—any diver, at any depth, must be in pressure balance with the forces at that depth. The body can only function normally when the pressure difference between the forces acting inside of the diver's body and forces acting outside is very small. Pressure, whether of the atmosphere, seawater, or the diver's breathing gases, must always be thought of in terms of maintaining pressure balance.

2-9.1 Atmospheric Pressure. Given that one atmosphere is equal to 33 feet of sea water or 14.7 psi, 14.7 psi divided by 33 feet equals 0.445 psi per foot. Thus, for every foot of sea water, the total pressure is increased by 0.445 psi. Atmospheric pressure is constant at sea level; minor fluctuations caused by the weather are usually ignored. Atmospheric pressure acts on all things in all directions.

Most pressure gauges measure differential pressure between the inside and outside of the gauge. Thus, the atmospheric pressure does not register on the pressure gauge of a cylinder of compressed air. The initial air in the cylinder and the gauge are already under a base pressure of one atmosphere (14.7 psi or 10N/cm2). The gauge measures the pressure difference between the atmosphere and the increased air pressure in the tank. This reading is called gauge pressure and for most purposes it is sufficient.

In diving, however, it is important to include atmospheric pressure in computations. This total pressure is called absolute pressure and is normally expressed in units of atmospheres. The distinction is important and pressure must be identified as either gauge (psig) or absolute (psia). When the type of pressure is identified only as psi, it refers to gauge pressure. Table 2-10 contains conversion factors for pressure measurement units.

2-9.2 Terms Used to Describe Gas Pressure. Four terms are used to describe gas pressure:

■ Atmospheric. Standard atmosphere, usually expressed as 10N/cm2, 14.7 psi, or one atmosphere absolute (1 ata).

Barometric. Essentially the same as atmospheric but varying with the weather and expressed in terms of the height of a column of mercury. Standard pressure is equal to 29.92 inches of mercury, 760 millimeters of mercury, or 1013 millibars.

Gauge. Indicates the difference between atmospheric pressure and the pressure being measured.

Absolute. The total pressure being exerted, i.e., gauge pressure plus atmospheric pressure.

2-9.3 Hydrostatic Pressure. The water on the surface pushes down on the water below and so on down to the bottom where, at the greatest depths of the ocean (approximately 36,000 fsw), the pressure is more than 8 tons per square inch (1,100 ata). The pressure due to the weight of a water column is referred to as hydrostatic pressure.

The pressure of seawater at a depth of 33 feet equals one atmosphere. The absolute pressure, which is a combination of atmospheric and water pressure for that depth, is two atmospheres. For every additional 33 feet of depth, another atmosphere of pressure (14.7 psi) is encountered. Thus, at 99 feet, the absolute pressure is equal to four atmospheres. Table 2-1 shows how pressure increases with depth.

Depth Gauge Pressure |
Atmospheric Pressure |
Absolute Pressure |

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