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Weather Forecasting

What's the Difference Between Weather and Climate?

Weather happens at a particular time and place.

Monday was hot, the sky was blue. Today it rained a trickle. Last week it snowed for two days straight. The weather is totally fickle!

That was weird of you to say...

Weather. It keeps you guessing. It makes every day an adventure. Whatever the weather is doing now, it’s probably going to be doing something else in a matter of hours.

Weather also can vary abruptly from place to place. Sometimes the places are very close together. It could be raining at your house, but dry at school a few blocks away.

Meteorologists are scientists who study weather and weather prediction. With lots of high-tech tools, including the GOES satellites and radar and other ground-based instruments, meteorologists can give us a good idea of what the weather will be like for a few days in the future.

Climate is different.

Climate is regional and long-term

Climate is the bigger picture of temperatures, rainfall, wind and other conditions over a larger region and longer time. Climate scientists (called climatologists) have sorted Earth’s regional climates into categories, or zones, based mostly on average temperatures and precipitation. These are the characteristics that determine whether a region is a tundra, a desert, or a rain forest.

Drawing of angles of sunlight striking different latitudes on Earth at Winter solstice.

The primary cause of a region’s climate is its latitude. At and near the equator (low latitudes), the Sun’s ray’s hit Earth’s surface almost head-on all year long. At the Poles (high latitudes), the sunlight hardly reaches the surface at all half the time, and when it does, it passes through the atmosphere at a steep angle. In the mid-latitudes, the climate is more moderate, with the angle of the Sun and length of day changing throughout the seasons.

Here’s a map that shows Earth divided up by climate zones.

World map of climatic zones.

Click on the image to see an enlargement of North America's climate zones. What kind of climate do you live in?

Sometimes these climate types can exist together in a small area. The Big Island of Hawaii contains 10 or 11 different climate zones in an area of about 4,000 square miles. In this image from the Landsat satellite, you can see the very high mountains that have their own high-altitude climates, and that divide the island into dry and wet zones.