When you think about the difference between weather and climate, what it really comes down to is timing.
- Weather is what happens over the short term – day-to-day (or even moment-to-moment) changes in temperature, humidity, precipitation, etc.
- Climate is the average of weather events over a longer period of time (usually 30 years or more).
Here’s one useful way of visualizing the difference: Weather is what you wear today; climate is the varied types of clothes you have in your closet.
When the weather starts to get really cold (remember the polar vortex, anyone?), you might hear someone say, “It’s freezing outside. So much for global warming, huh?” As comedian Stephen Colbert once quipped, “Global warming isn’t real because I was cold today. Also great news, world hunger is over because I just ate.”
Conflating weather and climate is a favorite climate denier talking point. While the weather might be cold or snowy on any given day, the science is clear: On average, our world is getting warmer and warmer over time – and our climate is changing.
For instance, places like Colorado can still get very cold and see a huge pile up of snow, especially in the high country, on any given day. That’s the weather. But overall, Colorado is one of the fastest-warming states in the country, warming nearly 2 degrees Fahrenheit in the last 30 years. That’s the climate.
Global warming isn't real because I was cold today! Also great news: World hunger is over because I just ate.— Stephen Colbert (@StephenAtHome) November 19, 2014
Looking for another comparison to sort out the difference? Think about the stock market.
We have short periods in time when the market climbs rapidly, setting new daily or weekly highs. And we have short periods when the market tanks, setting new daily or weekly lows.
On those days, should you sell your stock just because it lost some value? It’s looking like a bad investment on that day, after all! But we know that the true value of a stock plays out in the much longer-term.
Climate is kind of like that. There will still be cold days, but the overall trend for our climate? It’s getting warmer and warmer.
In our latest Climate 101 fact sheet, we deliver the science behind weather and climate in plain language. Beyond what we covered here, you’ll learn:
- Why the difference between weather and climate matters to our everyday lives.
- How climate change impacts our weather by intensifying the water cycle.
- What the research says on how Americans view the relationship between climate change and weather.
Before You Go
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