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Weather vs. Climate - Explained

Climate is what you expect, weather is what you get. Though they are closely related, weather and climate aren’t the same thing. Let's get into the details...

What exactly is weather?

Weather is the mix of events that happen each day in our atmosphere. Even though there’s only one atmosphere on Earth, the weather isn’t the same all around the world. Weather is different in different parts of the world and changes over minutes, hours, days, and weeks.

Most weather happens in the part of Earth’s atmosphere that is closest to the ground, called the troposphere. And, there are many different factors that can change the atmosphere in a certain area like air pressure, temperature, humidity, wind speed and direction, and lots of other variables. Together, they determine what the weather is like at a given time and location.

What exactly is climate?

Whereas weather refers to short-term changes in the atmosphere, climate describes what the weather is like over a long period of time in a specific area. Different regions can have different climates. To describe the climate of a place, we might say what the temperatures are like during different seasons, how windy it usually is, or how much rain or snow typically falls.

When scientists talk about climate, they're often looking at averages of precipitation, temperature, humidity, sunshine, wind, and other measures of weather that occur over a long period in a particular place. In some instances, they might look at these averages over 30 years. And, we refer to these three-decade averages of weather observations as climate normals.

Looking at climate normals can help us describe whether the summers are hot and humid or whether the winters are cold and snowy at a particular place. They can also tell us when we might expect the warmest day of the year or the coldest day of the year at that location. But, while descriptions of an area’s climate provide a sense of what to expect, they don't provide any specific details about what the weather will be on any given day.

The graphic above is one way to visualize it. Weather tells you what to wear each day. Climate tells you what types of clothes to have in your closet.

How do weather observations become climate data?

Across the globe, observers and automated stations measure weather conditions at thousands of locations every day of the year. Some observations are made hourly, others just once a day. Over time, these weather observations allow us to quantify long-term average conditions, which provide insight into an area’s climate.

In many locations around the United States, systematic weather records have been kept for over 140 years. With these long-term records, we can detect patterns and trends.

Are regional climates different from the global climate?

Like the United States, different regions of the world have varying climates. But, we can also describe the climate of an entire planet—referred to as the global climate. Global climate is a description of the climate of a planet as a whole, with all the regional differences averaged. Overall, global climate depends on the amount of energy received by the sun and the amount of energy that is trapped in the system. 

And, these amounts are different for different planets. Scientists who study Earth’s climate look at the factors that affect our planet as a whole.

How does the climate change?

While the weather can change in just a few minutes or hours, climate changes over longer timeframes. Climate events, like El Niño, happen over several years, with larger fluctuations happening over decades. And, even larger climate changes happen over hundreds and thousands of years.

Today, climates are changing. Our Earth is warming more quickly than it has in the past. Hot summer days may be quite typical of climates in many regions of the world, but warming is causing the Earth's average global temperature to increase. The amount of solar radiation, the chemistry of the atmosphere, clouds, and the biosphere all affect the Earth's climate.

As the global climate changes, weather patterns are changing as well. While it’s impossible to say whether a particular day’s weather or hurricane was affected by climate change, it is possible to predict how patterns might change. Mountain glaciers will continue to melt, sea levels will continue to rise, and more extreme weather events will occur as the Earth’s climate warms.

Why do we study climate?

Climate, climate change, and their impacts on weather events affect people all around the world. Changing regional climates could alter forests, crop yields, water supplies, and yes, even seasonal snowfall in most mountain regions with ski areas around the world.

Climate change will also affect human health, animals, and many types of ecosystems. Deserts may expand into existing rangelands, and features of some of our National Parks and National Forests may be permanently altered.

What about weather models vs. climate models?

Climate models are more useful farther out in the future since they are projecting long-term averages, such as changes in temperatures and precipitation averages compared to past years, and not short-term specific weather events. That's where weather models come into play.

For example, using a climate model, we can say that we can expect average temperatures to be warmer and precipitation to be higher in a region over the next decade based on long-term climate trends, but a climate model won't tell us if a storm will hit next month or if next year will be warmer or colder than average in a particular region.


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SAM COLLENTINE

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