Climate: Classifications, Distribution & Causes

Instructor: David Wood

David has taught Honors Physics, AP Physics, IB Physics and general science courses. He has a Masters in Education, and a Bachelors in Physics.

After completing this lesson, you will be able to describe the way that we classify climates, how those climates are distributed across the world, and what factors cause those climates. A short quiz will follow.

Climate Classification

Climate is the general weather conditions of a large area over a long period of time. There are lots of ways to classify climate, but the Koppen-Geiger climate classification is the most comprehensive and is extremely common in scientific circles. It splits the Earth into 29 climates, which are split into five groups: tropical climates, dry climates, temperate (mild temperature) climates, continental climates, and polar/alpine (near the poles or mountainous) climates. There are three variations of tropical climates, four dry climates, eight temperate climates, 12 continental climates, and two polar/alpine climates.

Here is a map of the world using this classification system:

Koppen-Geiger Climate World Map
Koppen-Geiger Climate World Map

It's pretty mixed and complex, but there are still certain patterns you can find if you look carefully enough. Maybe you can see them already, but let's get into more detail about how these climates are distributed around the world.

Climate Distribution

Across the world, these climate zones are distributed in complex patterns. But there are certain generalizations we can make about where they're located.

In general, the closer you get to the Equator, the hotter the climate will be due to being in more direct sunlight. This causes the world's climates to form a kind of quadruple-decker sandwich. You tend to get equatorial and tropical savannah climates near the equator, tundra and polar climates near the poles, deserts at certain latitudes, and so on.

How far inland you are also makes a difference, especially in the eight temperate climates. Being on the coast in one of these areas, you might find yourself in temperate climates like oceanic, or even Mediterranean. But further inland in a temperate area, you will often find climates like humid continental or humid subtropical.

US Climate Map Showing Coastal (left) vs Inland (right)
US Climate Map Showing Coastal (left) vs Inland (right)

Climate Causes

Different climates are caused by many factors, but the five most important ones are: latitude, elevation, currents, proximity to large bodies of water, and terrain.

Latitude relates to how close you are to the Equator: as discussed, this has a big impact on where the climate zones are positioned.

Temperature Depends on Latitude
Temperature Depends on Latitude

Elevation is how high above sea level you are. Have you ever climbed a mountain on a really hot day and been surprised when you ran into a bunch of snow? The higher you get, the colder it gets. So while latitude contributes a lot to temperature, it isn't the only factor. A place near the Equator that is mountainous can be colder than a place further from the Equator that's at sea level.

Ocean & Wind Currents: The fact that hot water and air rises and cooler water and air sinks beneath is it a big part of creating the weather patterns you see on your TV forecast. When a warm front approaches and rises over a cold front, it can create rain, for example. And since climate is really just weather over a long period, the general patterns of these currents affect the climate.

The Air and Ocean Currents of the World are Significant
The Air and Ocean Currents of the World are Significant

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