The altimeter is calibrated to show the pressure directly as an altitude above mean sea level, in accordance with a mathematical model defined by the International Standard Atmosphere (ISA). Older aircraft used a simple aneroid barometer where the needle made less than one revolution around the face from zero to full scale. Modern aircraft use a "sensitive altimeter" which has a primary needle that makes multiple revolutions, and one or more secondary needles that show the number of revolutions, similar to a clock face. In other words, each needle points to a different digit of the current altitude measurement.
On a sensitive altimeter, the sea level reference pressure can be adjusted by a setting knob. The reference pressure, in inches of mercury in Canada and the US and millibars (or hectopascals) elsewhere, is displayed in the Kollsman Window, visible at the right side of the aircraft altimeter shown here. This is necessary, since sea level reference atmospheric pressure varies with temperature and the movement of pressure systems in the atmosphere.
In aviation terminology, the regional or local air pressure at mean sea level (MSL) is called the QNH or "altimeter setting", and the pressure which will calibrate the altimeter to show the height above ground at a given airfield is called the QFE of the field. An altimeter cannot, however, be adjusted for variations in air temperature. Differences in temperature from the ISA model will, therefore, cause errors in indicated altitude.
The calibration formula for an altimeter, up to , can be written as:
where h is the indicated altitude in feet, is the static pressure and is the reference pressure (use same units for both). This is derived from the barometric formula using the scale height for the troposphere.
A number of satellites (see links) use advanced dual-band radar altimeters to measure height from a spacecraft. That measurement, coupled with orbital elements (possibly augmented by GPS), enables determination of the terrain. The two different wavelengths of radio waves used permit the altimeter to automatically correct for varying delays in the ionosphere.
Spaceborne radar altimeters have proven to be superb tools for mapping ocean-surface topography, the hills and valleys of the sea surface. These instruments send a microwave pulse to the ocean’s surface and time how long it takes to return. A microwave radiometer corrects any delay that may be caused by water vapor in the atmosphere. Other corrections are also required to account for the influence of electrons in the ionosphere and the dry air mass of the atmosphere. Combining these data with the precise location of the spacecraft makes it possible to determine sea-surface height to within a few centimetres (about one inch). The strength and shape of the returning signal also provides information on wind speed and the height of ocean waves. These data are used in ocean models to calculate the speed and direction of ocean currents and the amount and location of heat stored in the ocean, which, in turn, reveals global climate variations.