Climate Explained

For other uses see Climate (disambiguation).

Climate encompasses the temperatures, humidity, atmospheric pressure, winds, rainfall, atmospheric particle count and numerous other meteorological elements in a given region over long periods of time, as opposed to the term weather, which refers to current activity of these same elements. The climate of a location is affected by its latitude, terrain, altitude, persistent ice or snow cover, as well as nearby oceans and their currents. Climates can be classified using parameters such as temperature and rainfall to define specific climate types. The most commonly used classification scheme is the one originally developed by Wladimir Köppen. The Thornthwaite system,[1] in use since 1948, incorporates evapotranspiration in addition to temperature and precipitation information and is used in studying animal species diversity and potential impacts of climate changes. The Bergeron and Spatial Synoptic Classification systems focus on the origin of air masses defining the climate for certain areas.

Paleoclimatology is the study and description of ancient climates using information from both non-biotic factors such as sediments found in lake beds and ice cores, and biotic factors such as tree rings and coral, and can be used to extend back the temperature or rainfall information for particular locations to a time before various weather instruments were used to monitor weather conditions. Climate models are mathematical models of past, present and future climates and can be used to describe the likely patterns of future changes.


Climate (from Ancient Greek klima, meaning inclination) is commonly defined as the weather averaged over a long period of time.[2] The standard averaging period is 30 years,[3] but other periods may be used depending on the purpose. Climate also includes statistics other than the average, such as the magnitudes of day-to-day or year-to-year variations. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) glossary definition is:

Climate in a narrow sense is usually defined as the “average weather”, or more rigorously, as the statistical description in terms of the mean and variability of relevant quantities over a period of time ranging from months to thousands or millions of years. The classical period is 30 years, as defined by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). These quantities are most often surface variables such as temperature, precipitation, and wind. Climate in a wider sense is the state, including a statistical description, of the climate system.[4]

The difference between climate and weather is usefully summarized by the popular phrase "Climate is what you expect, weather is what you get."[5] Over historical time spans there are a number of static variables that determine climate, including latitude, altitude, proportion of land to water, and proximity to oceans and mountains. Other climate determinants are more dynamic: for example, the thermohaline circulation of the ocean leads to a 5 °C (9 °F) warming of the northern Atlantic ocean compared to other ocean basins.[6] Other ocean currents redistribute heat between land and water on a more regional scale. The density and type of vegetation coverage affects solar heat absorption,[7] water retention, and rainfall on a regional level. Alterations in the quantity of atmospheric greenhouse gases determines the amount of solar energy retained by the planet, leading to global warming or global cooling. The variables which determine climate are numerous and the interactions complex, but there is general agreement that the broad outlines are understood, at least insofar as the determinants of historical climate change are concerned.[8]

Climate classification

There are several ways to classify climates into similar regimes. Originally, climes were defined in Ancient Greece to describe the weather depending upon a location's latitude. Modern climate classification methods can be broadly divided into genetic methods, which focus on the causes of climate, and empiric methods, which focus on the effects of climate. Examples of genetic classification include methods based on the relative frequency of different air mass types or locations within synoptic weather disturbances. Examples of empiric classifications include climate zones defined by plant hardiness,[9] evapotranspiration,[10] air mass origin, or more generally the Köppen climate classification which was originally designed to identify the climates associated with certain biomes. A common shortcoming of these classification schemes is that they produce distinct boundaries between the zones they define, rather than the gradual transition of climate properties more common in nature.

Bergeron and Spatial Synoptic

See main article: article and Air mass.

The most generic classification is that involving the concept of air masses. The Bergeron classification is the most widely accepted form of air mass classification. Air mass classification involves three letters. The first letter describes its moisture properties, with c used for continental air masses (dry) and m for maritime air masses (moist). The second letter describes the thermal characteristic of its source region: T for tropical, P for polar, A for Arctic or Antarctic, M for monsoon, E for equatorial, and S for superior air (dry air formed by significant downward motion in the atmosphere). The third letter is used to designate the stability of the atmosphere. If the air mass is colder than the ground below it, it is labeled k. If the air mass is warmer than the ground below it, it is labeled w.[11] While air mass identification was originally used in weather forecasting during the 1950s, climatologists began to establish synoptic climatologies based on this idea in 1973.[12]

Based upon the Bergeron classification scheme is the Spatial Synoptic Classification system (SSC). There are six categories within the SSC scheme: Dry Polar (similar to continental polar), Dry Moderate (similar to maritime superior), Dry Tropical (similar to continental tropical), Moist Polar (similar to maritime polar), Moist Moderate (a hybrid between maritime polar and maritime tropical), and Moist Tropical (similar to maritime tropical, maritime monsoon, or maritime equatorial).[13]


See main article: article and Köppen climate classification.

The Köppen classification includes climate regimes such as rain forest, monsoon, tropical savanna, humid subtropical, humid continental, oceanic climate, Mediterranean climate, steppe, subarctic climate, tundra, polar ice cap, and desert.

Rain forests are characterized by high rainfall, with definitions setting minimum normal annual rainfall between 1750mm and 2000mm. Mean monthly temperatures exceed 18C during all months of the year.[14]

A monsoon is a seasonal prevailing wind which lasts for several months, ushering in a region's rainy season.[15] Regions such as within North America, South America. Sub-Saharan Africa, Australia and East Asia to qualify as monsoon regimes.[16]

A tropical savanna is a grassland biome located in semi-arid to semi-humid climate regions of subtropical and tropical latitudes, with average temperatures remain at or above 18C year round and rainfall between 750mm and 1270mm a year. They are widespread on Africa, and are also found in India, the northern parts of South America, Malaysia, and Australia.[17]

The humid subtropical climate zone where winter rainfall (and sometimes snowfall) is associated with large storms that the westerlies steer from west to east. Most summer rainfall occurs during thunderstorms and from occasional tropical cyclones.[18] Humid subtropical climates lie on the east side continents, roughly between latitudes 20° and 40° degrees away from the equator.[19]

A humid continental climate is marked by variable weather patterns and a large seasonal temperature variance. Places with a hottest monthly temperature above 10C and a coldest month temperature below -3C and which do not meet the criteria for an arid climate, are classified as continental.[20]

An oceanic climate is typically found along the west coasts at the middle latitudes of all the world's continents, and in southeastern Australia, and is accompanied by plentiful precipitation year round.[21]

The Mediterranean climate regime resembles the climate of the lands in the Mediterranean Basin, parts of western North America, parts of Western and South Australia, in southwestern South Africa and in parts of central Chile. The climate is characterized by hot, dry summers and cool, wet winters.[22]

A steppe is a dry grassland with an annual temperature range in the summer of up to 40C and during the winter down to -40C.[23]

A subarctic climate has little precipitation,[24] and monthly temperatures which are above 10C for one to three months of the year, with continuous permafrost due to the very cold winters. Winters within subarctic climates include up to six months of temperatures averaging below 0C.[25]

Tundra occurs in the far Northern Hemisphere, north of the taiga belt, including vast areas of northern Russia and Canada [26] .

A polar ice cap, or polar ice sheet, is a high-latitude region of a planet or moon that is covered in ice. Ice caps form because high-latitude regions receive less energy in the form of solar radiation from the sun than equatorial regions, resulting in lower surface temperatures.[27]

A desert is a landscape form or region that receives very little precipitation. Deserts usually have a large diurnal and seasonal temperature range, with high daytime temperatures (in summer up to 45 °C or 113 °F), and low night-time temperatures (in winter down to 0 °C; 32 °F) due to extremely low humidity. Many deserts are formed by rain shadows, as mountains block the path of moisture and precipitation to the desert.[28]


See also: Microthermal, Mesothermal and Megathermal. This climate classification method monitors the soil water budget using the concept of evapotranspiration.[29] It monitors the portion of total precipitation used to nourish vegetation over a certain area.[30] It uses indices such as a humidity index and an aridity index to determine an area's moisture regime based upon its average temperature, average rainfall, and average vegetation type.[31] The lower the value of the index is any given area, the drier the area is.

The moisture classification includes climatic classes with descriptors such as hyperhumid, humid, subhumid, subarid, semi-arid (values of -20 to -40), and arid (values below -40).[32] Humid regions experience more precipitation than evaporation each year, while arid regions experience greater evaporation than precipitation on an annual basis. A total of 33 percent of the earth's landmass is considered either arid of semi-arid, including southwest North America, southwest South America, most of northern and a small part of southern Africa, southwest and portions of eastern Asia, as well as much of Australia.[33] Studies suggest that precipitation effectiveness (PE) within the Thornthwaite moisture index is overestimated in the summer and underestimated in the winter. This index can be effectively used to determine the number of herbivore and mammal species numbers within a given area.[34] The index is also used in studies of climate change.[35]

Thermal classifications within the Thornthwaite scheme include microthermal, mesothermal, and megathermal regimes. A mircothermal climate is one of low annual mean temperatures, generally between 0C and 14C which experiences short summers and has a potential evaporation between 14cm (06inches) and 43cm (17inches).[36] A mesothermal climate lacks persistent heat or persistent cold, with potential evaporation between 57cm (22inches) and 114cm (45inches).[37] A megathermal climate is one with persistent high temperatures and abundant rainfall, with potential evaporation in excess of 114cm (45inches).[38]



Details of the modern climate record are known through the taking of measurements from such weather instruments as thermometers, barometers, and anemometers during the past few centuries. The instruments used to study weather conditions over the modern time scale, their known error, their immediate environment, and their exposure have changed over the years, which must be considered when studying the climate of centuries past.[39]


See main article: article and Paleoclimatology.

Paleoclimatology is the study of past climate over a great period of the Earth's history. It uses evidence from ice sheets, tree rings, sediments, coral, and rocks to determine the past state of the climate. It demonstrates periods of stability and periods of change and can indicate whether changes follow patterns such as regular cycles.[40]

Climate change

See also: Climate change, Global warming, temperature record and attribution of recent climate change.

Climate change refers to the variation in the Earth's global climate or in regional climates over time. It describes changes in the variability or average state of the atmosphere over time scales ranging from decades to millions of years. These changes can be caused by processes internal to the Earth, external forces (e.g. variations in sunlight intensity) or, more recently, human activities.[41]

In recent usage, especially in the context of environmental policy, the term "climate change" often refers only to changes in modern climate, including the rise in average surface temperature known as global warming. In some cases, the term is also used with a presumption of human causation, as in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The UNFCCC uses "climate variability" for non-human caused variations.[42]

Earth has undergone periodic climate shifts in the past, including four major ice ages. These consisting of glacial periods where conditions are colder than normal, separated by interglacial periods. The accumulation of snow and ice during a glacial period increases the surface albedo, reflecting more of the Sun's energy into space and maintaining a lower atmospheric temperature. Increases in greenhouse gases, such as by volcanic activity, can increase the global temperature and produce an interglacial. Suggested causes of ice age periods include the positions of the continents, variations in the Earth's orbit, changes in the solar output, and vulcanism.[43]

Climate models

See also: Climate models and Climatology.

Climate models use quantitative methods to simulate the interactions of the atmosphere,[44] oceans, land surface and ice. They are used for a variety of purposes from study of the dynamics of the weather and climate system to projections of future climate. All climate models balance, or very nearly balance, incoming energy as short wave (including visible) electromagnetic radiation to the earth with outgoing energy as long wave (infrared) electromagnetic radiation from the earth. Any imbalance results in a change in the average temperature of the earth.

The most talked-about models of recent years have been those relating temperature to the build-up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, primarily carbon dioxide (see greenhouse gas). These models predict an upward trend in the global mean surface temperature, with the most rapid increase in temperature being projected for the higher latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere.

Models can range from relatively simple to quite complex:

See also

External links

Notes and References

  1. [C. W. Thornthwaite]
  2. Encyclopedia: Climate. Glossary of Meteorology. American Meteorological Society. 2008-05-14.
  3. Web site: Climate averages. 2008-05-17. Met Office.
  4. [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change]
  5. National Weather Service Office Tucson, Arizona. Main page. Retrieved on 2007-06-01.
  6. Stefan Rahmstorf. The Thermohaline Ocean Circulation: A Brief Fact Sheet. Retrieved on 2008-05-02.
  7. Gertjan de Werk and Karel Mulder. Heat Absorption Cooling For Sustainable Air Conditioning of Households. Retrieved on 2008-05-02.
  8. Ledley, T.S.. Sundquist, E.T.; Schwartz, S.E.; Hall, D.K.; Fellows, J.D.; Killeen, T.L.. 1999. Climate change and greenhouse gases. EOS. 80. 39. 453. 2008-05-17. 10.1029/99EO00325.
  9. [United States National Arboretum]
  10. Encyclopedia: Thornethwaite Moisture Index. Glossary of Meteorology. American Meteorological Society. 2008-05-21.
  11. Encyclopedia: Airmass Classification. Glossary of Meteorology. American Meteorological Society. 2008-05-22.
  12. Schwartz, M.D.. 1995. Detecting Structural Climate Change: An Air Mass-Based Approach in the North Central United States, 1958-1992. Annals of the Association of American Geographers. 85. 3. 553–568. 10.1111/j.1467-8306.1995.tb01812.x.
  13. Robert E. Davis, L. Sitka, D. M. Hondula, S. Gawtry, D. Knight, T. Lee, and J. Stenger. J1.10 A preliminary back-trajectory and air mass climatology for the Shenandoah Valley (Formerly J3.16 for Applied Climatology). Retrieved on 2008-05-21.
  14. Susan Woodward. Tropical Broadleaf Evergreen Forest: The Rainforest. Retrieved on 2008-03-14.
  15. Encyclopedia: Monsoon. Glossary of Meteorology. American Meteorological Society. 2008-05-14.
  16. International Committee of the Third Workshop on Monsoons. The Global Monsoon System: Research and Forecast. Retrieved on 2008-03-16.
  17. Susan Woodward. Tropical Savannas. Retrieved on 2008-03-16.
  18. Encyclopedia: Humid subtropical climate. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 2008. 2008-05-14.
  19. Michael Ritter. Humid Subtropical Climate. Retrieved on 2008-03-16.
  20. Peel, M. C. and Finlayson, B. L. and McMahon, T. A.. 2007. Updated world map of the Köppen-Geiger climate classification. Hydrol. Earth Syst. Sci.. 11. 1633–1644. 1027-5606.
  21. Climate. Oceanic Climate. Retrieved on 2008-04-15.
  22. Michael Ritter. Mediterranean or Dry Summer Subtropical Climate. Retrieved on 2008-04-15.
  23. Blue Planet Biomes. Steppe Climate. Retrieved on 2008-04-15.
  24. Michael Ritter. Subarctic Climate. Retrieved on 2008-04-16.
  25. Susan Woodward. Taiga or Boreal Forest. Retrieved on 2008-06-06.
  26. Web site: The Tundra Biome. The World's Biomes. 2006-03-05.
  27. Michael Ritter. Ice Cap Climate. Retrieved on 2008-03-16.
  28. [San Diego State University]
  29. Glossary of Meteorology. Thornethwaite Moisture Index. Retrieved on 2008-05-21.
  30. Encyclopedia: Moisture Index. Glossary of Meteorology. American Meteorological Society. 2008-05-21.
  31. Eric Green. Foundations of Expansive Clay Soil. Retrieved on 2008-05-21.
  32. Istituto Agronomico per l'Otremare. 3 Land Resources. Retrieved on 2008-05-21.
  33. Book: Fredlund, D.G.. Rahardjo, H.. 1993. Soil Mechanics for Unsaturated Soils. Wiley-Interscience. pdf. 978-0471850083. 2008-05-21. 26543184.
  34. Hawkins, B.A.. Pausas, J.G.. 2004. Does plant richness influence animal richness?: the mammals of Catalonia (NE Spain). Diversity & Distributions. 10. 4. 247–252. 10.1111/j.1366-9516.2004.00085.x. 2008-05-21.
  35. Gregory J. McCabe and David M. Wolock. Trends and temperature sensitivity of moisture conditions in the conterminous United States. Retrieved on 2008-05-21.
  36. Encyclopedia: Microthermal Climate. Glossary of Meteorology. American Meteorological Society. 2008-05-21.
  37. Encyclopedia: Mesothermal Climate. Glossary of Meteorology. American Meteorological Society. 2008-05-21.
  38. Encyclopedia: Megathermal Climate. Glossary of Meteorology. American Meteorological Society. 2008-05-21.
  39. Spencer Weart. The Modern Temperature Trend. Retrieved on 2007-06-01.
  40. [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration]
  41. Arctic Climatology and Meteorology. Climate change. Retrieved on 2008-05-19.
  42. Web site: Glossary. Climate Change 2001: The Scientific Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Third Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. 2008-05-22. 2001-01-20. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
  43. Illinois State Museum (2002). Ice Ages. Retrieved on 2007-05-15.
  44. Eric Maisonnave. Climate Variability. Retrieved on 2008-05-02.
  45. Modelling the climate. Retrieved on 2008-05-02.