Climate is what we expect,
weather is what we get.
– Mark Twain
The sky darkens as a mass of thick, low clouds sweep across the sky. Winds blast frigid air through the city and flurries fly violently with every gust. The snowstorm unloads more than a foot of snow in only a few hours. Roads become slick with sludge and snow, branches bend with the new weight, and only a few brave the storm until the snow ceases and plow trucks come to the rescue. People share photos of snow-covered lawns. Friends swap stories about courageous trips to the grocery store for milk and bread. And talk about the recent winter weather creeps into the highly debated climate change discussion.
So, what’s going on? If the climate is really warming, why are we experiencing below freezing temperatures and severe snowstorms? Is climate change just a hoax? Should I be stocking up on canned food, candles, weapons, and medical supplies?
Well, before you answer any of these questions, let’s take a look at what climate and weather really are.
When the Americas were still young to European immigrants, there were thousands of farmers raising animals and crops all over a relatively unknown land with much different weather patterns than over seas. Since crops rely on sun and rain, and can be destroyed by drought and freezing temperatures, farmers are very concerned with weather. In this way, farmers had to study the new weather patterns in order to make a living and survive. Weather was something to talk about in detail with the neighbor or a fellow farmer as most people were trying to figure out if it would rain today or if it would be cold tonight. Sharing with each other what they saw or felt, they made assumptions as to what natural occurrences might be a sign of which weather event–explaining the colorful array of old weather sayings. They even developed records of weather patterns and used these to predict the future weather for the next year–the many variations of the farmer’s almanac.
Those early farmers also found out that the weather patterns in one location of the Americas was significantly different year after year than the weather patterns in a different area. This difference was due to different climates. Climate is the average of atmospheric conditions–temperature, humidity, precipitation, wind, airborne particulates, air pressure, etc.–over time and space. Weather can change in five minutes, defying any human or computer prediction and potentially causing large-scale destruction. However, climate in one area remains steady from year to year and typically only changes very very little over the course of even a century–unless something dramatic occurs, such as a massive volcanic eruption. The reasons for differences in climate between two areas are many (altitude, air currents, proximity to sea, latitude, mountain ranges, etc.).
To better identify the difference between climate and weather let’s examine a terrarium. Terrariums are artificial environments that mimic natural ones. Anything from a pet frog or turtle in a fish tank, an indoor plant display in a glass jar, or a venus flytrap in a 2-liter bottle is a terrarium. The weather inside is usually man-made and, therefor, usually regular. Let’s say you mist the inside of the terrarium with water once a week, keep the (mostly) airtight lid on, turn off the lights at night, and you don’t let it get too hot in the sun or near the radiator. This means the climate inside stays fairly regular–humid, warm, and partly sunny–and can support life.
Now, let’s say you leave the lid off for a day. The man-made “weather” changed and the inside will dry out a bit as dry air flows in and takes out humidity from the tank or jar. Some plants may shrivel and the frog might be unhappy, but if we put the lid back on and continue routine watering, the internal climate returns to normal. We could give the terrarium flood or drought, storm with wind or snow, extreme heat or cold, but as long as the conditions return to normal after a short period of chaotic “weather”, the terrarium residents will continue to survive in the terrarium climate.
Weather, then, is the atmospheric conditions inside that terrarium at any one moment. Climate, however, is the relative pattern of what weather happens in the terrarium over the course of a year or more.
So, what does this mean in regards to climate change? Weather is apt to change day to day, season to season, and year to year. A major weather event–huge snowstorm, rough hurricane, single summer of drought, etc.–does not necessarily indicate anything about the state of the climate. Climate is not apt to change. From year to year, decade to decade, climate changes very very little… or, at least it should. Now, however, we can look back into our weather history far enough to notice whether or not climate is changing, since climate is measured over the course of many years. We already know that certain gases in the atmosphere trap heat and eventually warm the planet as well. We know that those gases are being released into the atmosphere. We also know that while some amount of the gases are released naturally, a significant amount are released as a byproduct of human activity. What we don’t necessarily know is what will occur as a result of global warming. Climate change is one certain result, meaning that the average of atmospheric conditions relative to a region are changing. This may cause more dramatic weather patterns to develop as a result–increase in snowfall and severity of winter storms; decrease in snowfall leading to lack of snow and ice melt in spring and lower water levels/less flow in streams and rivers; severe droughts increasing chance and severity of wildfires; increase in intensity and frequency of storm surges causing shoreline and beach erosion; increased rainfall leading to flooding, mudslides, and erosion. The list of weather phenomena and their effect on the environment goes on.
The thought of global warming can be unbelievable or heartbreaking. Unbelievable that mankind could possibly change the entire world, alter the awesomeness of nature in its entirety. Or heartbreaking that the world seems doomed, that there is a foreseeable end to Earth. However, these views are not true. While we have inflicted great change, the endpoint for how much that change will affect the Earth is not definite. If we actually DO everything in our power (as opposed to merely talking about it) then perhaps the damage will be minimal and the change not so great–like slamming down on the breaks before inevitably hitting the tree with your car. The global civilization that we created and now rely on must work to make a change. In contrast, as individuals, with the changing climate we become more like those early American farmers, settling a land where the weather is uncertain and attempting to survive.