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What would happen with too much or too little atmospheric pressure?

Your body is designed to cope with the Earth’s atmospheric pressure, but what happens at extremes of low or high pressure? If you were ever unfortunate enough to find yourself in a vacuum, you’d quickly notice that you were starting to bloat as the small pockets of air trapped inside your body, free from the pressing constraints of atmospheric pressure, expand. Then your ear drums would rupture. And since gases escape from liquids much more easily at lower pressures, the liquids in your body would start to boil. Imagine experiencing the saliva on your tongue coming to the boil. There is some good news though – you wouldn’t actually explode as your skin is far too elastic to rupture and in any case, you’d pass out from lack of oxygen before you got to see your blood boiling.

Inflated spacesuits

All of which are reasons why astronauts wear spacesuits whenever they venture outside their spacecraft. Spacesuits are inflated like balloons to create pressure on the body equal to the Earth’s atmospheric pressure. In addition, in the hours before a space walk, astronauts breathe pure oxygen to reduce the amount of nitrogen in their blood. This helps to reduce the risk of them suffering from the bends, a condition also feared by divers.

The bends

Divers have the opposite challenge to astronauts – how to survive the very high pressures of deep water and then return back to atmospheric pressure at sea level. The gases in the air tanks that divers use to breathe are at the same high pressure as the deep water. However, gases that are under high pressure dissolve very easily in water (this is how fizzy drinks are made). This means that if a diver stays in deep water for a long period of time, some of the high pressure nitrogen in the air they are breathing will dissolve in the water in their own body. This becomes a problem if the diver then surfaces too quickly. As the pressure plummets, the nitrogen comes out of solution and forms painful, and potentially life threatening, bubbles of gas. The only way to avoid getting the bends is to come to the surface slowly, allowing the nitrogen to be released slowly as the pressure gradually decreases.

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