Sosa: What’s the difference between weather and climate?

Release of an ozonesonde balloon

Zoami Calles-Rios Sosa

I didn’t always know the exact difference between weather and climate. Even though I used both words interchangeably (which is incorrect), I had some semblance of understanding what each word meant. Weather was representative of whether it was going to rain or not; will it be windy? Do I need a sweater? Should I wear shorts? Climate was more along the lines of weather on average for a place. Like, it snows in the north during winter, and it’s hot and dry in the deserts during summer.  

If you Google the definition of weather you get: “the state of the atmosphere at a place and time as regards heat, dryness, sunshine, wind, rain, etc.” this is how we think about weather in general, but it is important to point out that “time” plays a humongous role in weather. 

Weather only refers to the state of the atmosphere at any given point. Because the world is always changing, the weather has to adjust constantly to each moment in time.

Science can predict the weather for the next seconds to a few weeks out, but it never seems to be quite accurate, and the predictions are always changing. What gives? 

Imagine how you get to work or school each day. Most of the time, you probably take the exact same route. Some days, if you are feeling adventurous, you may take a different way. If there is a lot of traffic, you may decide to travel down a less congested route. 

There are an infinite number of scenarios that could happen and ways you could get to work or school. However, you most likely stick to the same routine each week. 

Weather is similar to the route you take each day. It follows a general pattern. A pattern that we have observed by recording data for a long time. It’s hard to predict sometimes because there are many factors that we may not have accounted for. 

Imagine if your friend, who lives in a town 50 miles opposite of where your work is, calls right as you are leaving for work and asks you to pick them up because their car isn’t working and they need a ride. 

If you pick them up, then your daily routine has been completely changed. There was no way you would have known this would happen the day before, so you could not have accounted for it. 

It’s the same for the weather. There are a lot of factors that can change the weather from one moment to the next. It’s hard for a computer to keep track of everything that may affect the weather from moment to moment when it doesn’t know all of the things that affect weather 100% of the time.

The way our world works is quite intricate and complex.

As for climate, when scientists are talking about it, they refer to the 30 years average of weather over a region. Referring back to the weather being the route you take each day, climate is the “preferred” route you take over a long period of time. 

If you have been at a place for a few years, you certainly have a preferred route. You may not be able to take it every day, but if we zoom out for a year or two, we will be able to tell with certainty which route you prefer the most.

There is a big debate about whether climate change is real or not. Some will point out the recent Polar Vortex we just experienced, while others will point out the hottest days being set on record recently. Now that you know the difference between weather and climate, we can easily see that although these are crazy and extreme weather conditions, they do not make up the total picture.

To get a clear picture, we need to look at the overall climate state. The average of the past 30 years and compare it to the previous climate periods. It is only there that we will be able to see which way we are trending and how fast we are getting there. 

One of the best places you can get information about the state of our world regarding overall trends is the IPCC – the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. This group’s purpose is to make assessments of the state of our climate. NASA also has great sources of information if you want to check them out.