What’s The Difference Between Weather vs. Climate?

“Climate is what we expect, weather is what we get.” This pithy quote by famed science fiction author Robert A. Heinlein (among earlier variations) nicely frames the basic difference between climate and weather: climate refers to average, long-term conditions, while weather refers to specific, short-term conditions.

Of course, it’s more complicated than that.

We talk a lot about climate these days, especially in the context of climate change. The distinction between climate and weather can be especially confusing when extreme cold weather events like blizzards or record low temperatures are falsely presented as evidence that global warming isn’t real.

This is one of the reasons behind the shift toward use of the term climate change, which better reflects a situation that may seem counterintuitive—a change in climate involving an overall warming of the average temperature can lead to an increase in extreme weather events, including, in some cases, extreme cold weather.

To shed some light on the confusion that clouds the complex relationship between weather and climate, we need to go into more detail.

Quick summary: Weather refers to short-term atmospheric conditions—the temperature and precipitation on a certain day, for example. Climate refers to the average atmospheric conditions that prevail in a given region over a long period of time—whether a place is generally cold and wet or hot and dry, for example.

What does weather mean?

Weather is “the state of the atmosphere with respect to wind, temperature, cloudiness, moisture, pressure, etc.” So, in other words, weather is how the atmosphere is acting—Is it hot? Is it cold? Is it raining or super dry? Is the sun out or are there clouds?

So, you might open up the weather forecast for the day and discover that it’s going to be rainy and cold. Or you might say something like, We had some really hot weather yesterday. People love talking about the weather because it affects our lives each and every day.

Meteorology is popularly defined as the study of weather, and the weatherperson who delivers the weather forecasts on your local TV station is often referred to as a meteorologist. But meteorology also includes the study of climate and the relationship between the two—you can’t properly understand weather without understanding climate.

What else does weather mean?

As a verb, weather can mean to expose something to harsh conditions (such as by placing it outside, in the weather), often in order to change it in some way, as in We need to weather this leather to soften it. It can also mean to endure a storm or, more metaphorically, a negative or dangerous situation, as in We will simply have to weather the recession.

Whether or not you know the many meanings of weather, you should definitely educate yourself on these extreme weather words.

Where does the word weather come from?

Weather comes from the Old English weder, which is related to words for weather in other Germanic languages. The word weather ultimately shares the same root with the word wind, so wind and weather come from the same source!

What does climate mean?

Climate is “the composite or generally prevailing weather conditions of a region, as temperature, air pressure, humidity, precipitation, sunshine, cloudiness, and winds, throughout the year, averaged over a series of years.” This is generally understood to mean 30 years or more.

In other words, climate involves the atmospheric conditions that prevail in general in a region, not just the atmospheric conditions messing with your commute today. A place could have a cold, rainy climate (like the United Kingdom), or a hot, sunny, dry climate (like Egypt). The UK could have hot, sunny weather for a stretch, but that wouldn’t change the fact that its climate is overall usually pretty cold and rainy. Likewise, the weather in Egypt could occasionally be cold and rainy, but that doesn’t change the fact that it has a hot and dry climate.

Although climate classification systems vary, Earth’s climates are often classified into five general types: tropical, dry, temperate, continental, and polar.

 

  • Tropical climates are hot, humid, and extremely rainy. Examples: the Amazon rainforest, Thailand, Nigeria.
  • Dry climates are desertlike, getting very little precipitation. Examples: Arizona, the Australian Outback, most of Saudi Arabia.
  • Temperate climates have mild winters and hot, wet, and often stormy summers. Examples: a large part of the US (including much of the Southeast and Midwest), New Zealand, parts of China.
  • Continental climates have warm or cool summers and cold (sometimes very cold) winters. Examples: some northern parts of the US, parts of Canada and Russia.
  • Polar climates are cold all year around, and extremely cold in the winter. Examples: Antarctica, parts of Alaska, parts of Siberia.

 

Of course, not every place on Earth will fit neatly into one of these categories—some locations have a climate that’s specific to that place due to a number of unique factors.

A person who studies the climate is called a climatologist. Instead of focusing on short-term weather patterns and forecasting, a climatologist is interested in weather patterns spanning long periods of time, often decades and longer. People sometimes try to point to a sequence of cold weather as proof that climate change isn’t gradually affecting temperatures. But climatologists know that warming related to climate change occurs over many, many years, and involves the average temperature of a region. Climatologists study these slow, gradual changes—not the change in weather between one week and the next (though an increase in the frequency of extreme weather events can often be traced back to a changing climate).

What else does climate mean?

Metaphorically, climate can also mean the general (nonliteral) atmosphere or attitude of a place or situation, as in the phrase political climate. You might say something like, “The climate in the office worsened after the layoffs.”

A not-so-commonly used adjective form of climate is climatic, meaning “related to climate.” Don’t confuse it with climactic, which means “related to a climax.”

Take this moment to learn more about the differences between climatic and climactic!

Where does the word climate come from?

Climate entered the English language in the 1300s. It ultimately comes, via Latin, from the Greek klī́ma, meaning “slope.” This makes sense, since the “slope” or tilt of Earth contributes to different climate conditions at different latitudes.

How to use weather vs. climate

Ultimately, both weather and climate are about atmospheric conditions like temperature, precipitation, amount of sun, and other factors. But they differ in scale. Weather involves the atmospheric conditions and changes we experience in the short term, on a daily basis. Rain today, sun tomorrow, and snow next month—that’s weather. Climate involves long-term, average atmospheric conditions in a particular place. Is the place where you live consistently rainy and cool? Is it always 72 degrees and sunny? That’s climate.

So, when you’re making small talk about whether it’s rainy or sunny that day, you’re discussing the weather. If you’re complaining that it’s always way too hot where you live, all year round, you’re discussing your regional climate.

Changes to climate—even an average temperature rise of a few degrees—alter the weather patterns that we’re accustomed to. These changes may be subtle in some places while producing more drastic effects elsewhere. But because climate shapes weather in complex ways, these changes might not always be the ones we expect.

Global climate change is leading to overall average warmer temperatures, even in cold climates. This doesn’t mean that winter weather in Minnesota will become mild overnight. In fact, blizzards may become more intense due to the fact that higher temperatures allow the atmosphere to hold more moisture, which eventually falls as precipitation—including snow, under the right conditions. More extreme and more frequent storms, floods, and droughts are some examples of weather events that are being fueled by a change in climate.

Examples of weather and climate used in a sentence

Check out some examples of how to use weather vs. climate below.

 

  • This week’s hot weather has brought people out to the pool in droves.
  • I’ve always wanted to live in a place with a sunny climate!
  • Although we live in a hot climate, a freak blizzard brought a couple of days of snowy weather.
  • Our humid climate means we have damp, rainy weather most days.

 

Looking for more explanation?

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