Department of Energy Argonne National Laboratory Office of Science NEWTON's Homepage NEWTON's Homepage
NEWTON, Ask A Scientist!
NEWTON Home Page NEWTON Teachers Visit Our Archives Ask A Question How To Ask A Question Question of the Week Our Expert Scientists Volunteer at NEWTON! Frequently Asked Questions Referencing NEWTON About NEWTON About Ask A Scientist Education At Argonne Dew Point and Humidity
Name: mary
Status: N/A
Age: 50s
Location: N/A
Country: N/A
Date: 2000-2001

What is the difference between dew point and humidity and what effect does it have on heat index?

Hello Mary -

The dew point is the temperature to which the air must be cooled before it becomes saturated and water must condense out. The closer the temperature and the dew point, the more humid the air. Most often we meet humidity as "relative humidity" given as a percent - meaning the higher the percent, the closer the temperature and dew point are.

What makes this all tick is that warm air can hold more water than cold air.

Your heat index is properly called the THI - temperature-humidity index. When it is hot our body cools itself off by sweating. But in order to have a cooling effect the sweat must evaporate. As the relative humidity approaches 100% (i.e. the dew point/temperature spread approaches zero), the sweat does not evaporate well... therefore less cooling... therefore the body suffers more from the heat. The THI is a formulaic way of describing this phenomena.

Larry Krengel


Humidity is a measure of moisture content of air. Relative humidity is a percentage measure of moisture in the air compared to what the air actually is capable of holding at a particular temperature. Dew point is the temperature at or below which dew or liquid water will drop out of the air because the cooling temperature means the air can hold less water and the relative humidity has reached/exceeded 100% for that temperature and air mass. The heat index takes the temperature and does a correction designed to predict what a human body would interpret the temperature as, meaning, it is a measure of a person's apparent comfort considering temperature and humidity. Simply put, if a person normally becomes a bit uncomfortable in dry heat at 80 degrees, they might notice they feel less comfortable at 70 degrees with certain amount of humidity in the air. As the temperature and/or the humidity increase, the discomfort level increases.

Thanks for using NEWTON!


The dew point is a measure of absolute humidity. Generally, humidity is reported as "relative humidity," that is, the amount or water actually dissolved in the air divided by the amount of water that could possibly dissolve in air at the current temperature. This depends on both the amount of water in the air and on the temperature.

The Dew point tells the highest temperature an opbject could be to still collect dew or frost if placed outside. It turns out that this value depends only on the amount of water in the air. The higher the dew point, the more water there is.

The relative humidity can be determined from the dew point and the temperature; alternatively, the dew point can be determined from the relative humidity and the temperature. There are a variety of ways that humidity could be reported, but relative humidity and dew point are the most common.

Humidity drives up the heat index, because humidity makes us less able to cool off by sweating. High values of the dew point or of the relative humidity thus raise the heat index.

Richard E. Barrans Jr., Ph.D.
Assistant Director, PG Research Foundation
8205 S. Cass Avenue, Suite 111
Darien, IL 60561

The dew point is the temperature the air must be cooled to in order for condensation to occur. The higher the humidity, the closer the dew point is to the air temperature. When the humidity is 100 percent, the dew point and the temperature are the same. The dew point can never be higher than the temperature of the air at any given time.

Humidity can be measured in several different ways, but most commonly humidity is reported as the "relative humidity." Relative humidity (RH) is the ratio of the amount of moisture in the air compared to the amount the air is capable of holding at a given temperature, expressed as a percentage. So a relative humidity of 50 percent indicates the air, at the current temperature, holds 50 percent of the moisture it is capable of holding. In very dry climates, the RH is low...and in moist climates, it is high.

The heat index is an "apparent" temperature, which takes into account the relative humidity. The formula to calculate the heat index is rather complicated, but high temperatures combined with high humidities produces a high heat index. The heat index can never be lower than the actual air temperature, but rises as the humidity in the air increases.

Wendell Bechtold, Meteorologist
Forecaster, National Weather Service
Weather Forecast Office, St. Louis, MO


There are several measures of water vapor.

Dewpoint is the temperature at which the air becomes saturated with water, or, in other words, the temperature to which the air has to cool to reach 100% relative humidity. This is called the frost point when the temperature is below freezing.

Relative humidity is the ratio of the vapor pressure of the air to the vapor pressure at the dewpoint temperature, or in simplistic terms, the percentage of water vapor that the air holds compared to the amount of water vapor in the air when it is saturated (called the capacity).

There are several other measures of water vapor in the air (specific humidity, absolute humidity, mixing ratio) that are not as important in our discussion.

Heat Index was a term, that originally (52 years ago), had little to do with how hot it feels, but was used as to determine differences from climatic means of temperature and therefore how much water could be evaporated in comparison to a normal year. Since then the term Heat Index has come to be more commonly used to mean a measure of how hot a person will feel. However, there is a close relationship here because the ability of the body to evaporate sweat in addition to the temperature is what determines the Heat Index.

A large number of heat indices have been developed by researchers. A few take sun intensity into account, but otherwise all are similar.

In general, when the temperature is less than about 52 degrees F, increasing relative humidity makes it feel colder. Above 52 degrees, increasing relative humidity makes it feel warmer. High relative humidity retards the evaporation of sweat, causing the body to work harder to stay cool. This puts a large strain on the body. At high enough relative humidities and temperatures the body cannot cool itself adequately by sweating and the body temperature starts to rise.

You can find a chart of the heat index used by the National Weather Service and a lot more information about heat-related affects on the body at

David Cook
meteorologist at Argonne National Laboratory

Click here to return to the Weather Archives

NEWTON is an electronic community for Science, Math, and Computer Science K-12 Educators, sponsored and operated by Argonne National Laboratory's Educational Programs, Andrew Skipor, Ph.D., Head of Educational Programs.

For assistance with NEWTON contact a System Operator (, or at Argonne's Educational Programs

Educational Programs
Building 360
9700 S. Cass Ave.
Argonne, Illinois
60439-4845, USA
Update: June 2012
Weclome To Newton

Argonne National Laboratory