What's the Difference Between Weather and Climate?

When one discusses both the climate and the weather, one is drawing from the same bucket of building blocks: think temperature, humidity, solar radiation, precipitation, wind speed, etc. However, there are important—and far-reaching—distinctions between the two concepts, all that hinge around duration. As Encyclopedia Britannica so aptly puts it: “Weather and climate relate to one another in much the same way that an inning in a baseball game compares with the whole game.”

Let’s start with weather. When I say that it’s wet and chilly in New York City this morning, I’m describing the weather: it’s a set of conditions in the atmosphere for a short period of time, such as the day, night, or at some point in either. Weather can change from hour to hour or even minute to minute, and can refer to places as specific as neighboring towns, or parts of a city, or even opposite sides of a street. 

Climate, on the other hand, can be thought of as the average weather conditions over a long period of time—usually thirty years or longer. While weather is constantly changing, climate is (or should be) less volatile. In addition, climate usually refers to a large swath of geography, such as large parts of a country, or whole countries, or even parts of the planet. (The atmospheric conditions of the Sahara desert or the Amazon basin or the Arctic Circle, for example, would generally be referred to as climate, not weather.) 

Examining these two definitions, it’s worth nothing how dangerous it is to think of weather and climate as the same thing. It’s normal for weather to be constantly changing; it’s not normal for climate to be doing so. When climates shift even slightly, the consequences can be much more severe than a freak afternoon thunderstorm. (If you haven’t seen this deeply terrifying New York magazine piece, it’s worth a read.) We’ll dig into the differences between climate change and global warming another week—stay tuned. For now, stay dry!


If you liked this, subscribe to the What's the Difference newsletter here