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Hot Planet, Cold Winter: the Difference Between Climate and Weather

by Diana Chaplin December 08, 2020 3 min read

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Do You Know the Difference Between Climate and Weather?

In the realm of earth sciences, climate and weather are important factors to shaping our environment. In tandem, they give us white-fluffy snowstorms, thunder and lightning, warm summers, and chilly falls. They sustain the conditions for live to thrive, and are the forces of dynamic energy that have shaped our planet since the beginning.

The two also play an integral role in the science around global warming and its impact on shifting weather patterns.

But weather and climate are distinct features of earth’s atmosphere, despite the terms occasionally being used interchangeably.

So, what is the difference between climate and weather? One way to describe it would be "Climate is what you expect, weather is what you get".

desert dunes

What is Climate

Climate is described as a predicted long-termweather pattern within a region. Climate is why the Caribbean is known as a sun-soaked beach paradise, and Antarctica a bone-chilling expanse of ice.

While weather may change within an hour, the climate shifts over the course of decades and centuries. Unlike a meteorologist who makes a weather forecast based on data gathered that same day, climatologists collect data for periods of 30 years or more to determine future weather patterns.

rainy weather

What is Weather

Weather is what you check every morning before heading out the door. It dictates if you need rain boots or flip-flops, shorts or a beanie. It is the short-term(minutes-to-months) state of the atmosphere in a specific location at a specific time. The weather is right outside your window.

Weather is often conceived of in terms of measurements like temperature, precipitation, humidity, and air pressure. It is highly localized and can vary widely over short geographic distances.

How Climate and Weather Are Changing

Climate and weather are always changing, and, currently, changing in the direction of global warming.

How do we know the planet is warming? According to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the 10 warmest years on record have occurred since 1997. And the National Atmospheric and Oceanographic Administration (NOAA) reports that recent decades have been the warmest since at least around 1000 AD. Those are exactly the kind of patterns that climate scientists study. And as the climate changes, weather changes too, and not always in the ways you'd expect.

Extreme weather events have been increasing both in frequency and intensity in the past few decades, as revealed in the latest IPPC Report on Climate Change.

According to the World Resources Institute, in 2018 we witnessed the second highest number of category 5 cyclones in history; a record 1.6 million acres of California forest lost to wildfires; record levels of flooding in Japan, heat waves in New England during winter, ice storms in sunny Florida, as well as two of the most destructive hurricanes in U.S. history. And let's not forget the polar vortex! It was due to diminishing polar ice that some parts of North America, Europe, and Russia experienced extreme cold in 2017. It turns out that with less polar ice, cold blasts don't stay in their typical patterns, they start to travel below the Arctic. Who knew!? Well... climate scientists did!

And that's just the tip of the metaphorical iceberg when it comes to unusual weather, something we should brace ourselves for, because it's not going to stop anytime soon.


It can definitely sound theoretical if you haven't been affected much yet, but it matters because the changing climate hints at what you're likely to see more of in the future, so you can be prepared for the unpredictable. Winters could get warmer, summers drier, floods might be more regular.

We need to be informed, adapt, and play a role in the ways that we know humanity can actually address this situation. Atmospheric carbon, methane, and other pollutants have contributed to global warming, and we can definitely do something about that!

By advocating for a transition to renewable energy, contributing to environmental restoration, reducing your carbon footprint, and of course, supporting reforestation to absorb more of these greenhouse gasses, we can make a real impact. Not just for humanity, but for all the life forms we share the planet with.

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