This is part one of the Climate Education 101 Series, designed to jump start your understanding of the climate crisis. Browse the full catalog here.
What even is climate?
Climate is made up of the average conditions of the atmosphere over a course of several decades. It includes everything from temperature, precipitation, wind, humidity, and sunshine. The combination of these conditions are what define the climate of a given location: from low humidity and plenty of sunshine in Arizona to high humidity and rainfall in the Amazon. These conditions are expected.
Scientists that study climate examine the averages of these conditions. When we talk about climate change, we are discussing how these averages have adjusted over time.
How is climate different from weather?
The difference between weather and climate is time. If climate is the average conditions over several decades, weather is what we see outside our windows. It made up of short-term atmospheric events: minute-to-minute, hour-to-hour, and day-to-day. It changes frequently.
In the simplest terms, climate is we expect; weather is what we get. I expect sunny, hot summers in Florida, but I might get rain on any June day.
How can we tell if the climate is changing?
Climate scientists gather data from thousands of stations every year to study weather patterns. They compare this accumulated data with other scientific institutions to determine how this year varied from the last.
You may have noticed that in your area of the world, spring is arriving sooner or that summers are hotter. My birthday is in December and I’m from Florida—as a little kid, I remember having to bundle up, but as an adult, I spend my birthdays in sandals.
Because changes in climate are gradual and affect each part of the globe differently, some places of the world have felt the effects of a changing climate less than other places. Weather varies from year-to-year, making one record-breaking hot summer seem like the exception, not the norm. Regardless of your experience, the climate record demonstrates a pattern of warming.
Does climate affect animals and plants?
A thousand percent, yes. Plants and animals are in tune with the climate and will use expected seasonal changes as indicators to know when to mate, migrate, and more. Whether spring weather starts in April or February, trees will begin pollinating when it gets warmer.
Some animals are more intimately affected by changes in climate than others. For example, the sex of baby sea turtles can be influenced by temperature—a warm hatching season results in more females. In a 2018 report, female baby green sea turtles outnumbered males 116 to 1.
The faster climate changes, the harder it is for plants and animals to adapt—and with particularly fragile species, like sea turtles, rapid climate change could indicate extinction.
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