What’s the Difference Between Weather and Climate?

A frozen bubble on a branch

Here in New England, we’re cold. Really cold. It’s winter, which means many nights dip below zero and those digits take a while to crawl back up when the sun does finally come up. Some years, it’s cold enough for school to be delayed opening, for ski areas to miss out on business, and for outdoor cats to become indoor cats. In the past, it’s even been cold enough to affect the sharks!

Why is it so cold if the earth is warming at an unprecedented rate? Does this week’s chilly temperatures mean there’s no such thing as climate change?

No. The vast majority of scientists around the globe agree that climate change is a very real problem. We are still facing unprecedented high average temperatures, high levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and extreme natural disasters, even as we wrap layers around our heads and cut our sledding time by half. Remember—while it might be cold where you are, other places are experiencing record high temperatures. In fact, NASA and NOAA recently announced that 2019 was the second hottest year on record, and that the past five years have been the warmest in 140 years. 

It’s important to understand that there’s a difference between weather and climate. Weather is what we experience in the short term. A snowy day, a rainy afternoon, a sunny morning. These are all examples of weather, and we can predict the coming weather a few days out (though often we’re wrong with our predictions!)

Take a look at this guy walking his dog to see the difference between weather and climate.

Climate is the study of weather patterns during a much longer period of time. Years instead of weeks. It can be tempting to pull on your coat, hat, gloves, extra socks, and boots and think, “Phew, glad that global warming crisis is over!” as you head out into the cold, but unfortunately, that’s not how it works.

You can see in this gif from NASA that our average temperatures are getting higher and higher every year.

It’s especially important for young people to recognize the difference between weather and climate. They are going to be the future scientists and politicians finding ways to combat global warming as we move forward and implement solutions to the problem of climate change.

Need some discussion questions for your classroom?

  • What is the difference between weather and climate?
  • How do scientists know that the climate is changing?
  • How do we know the climate is changing because of humans and not just because of natural causes?
  • What are some things we can do as individuals to help the climate?
  • What are some things governments and large companies can do to slow climate change?

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