Factors that Influence Earth's Temperature

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  • 0:22 Latitude
  • 2:11 Altitude & Elevation
  • 3:23 Atmospheric…
  • 4:18 Land & Water
  • 5:50 Warm & Cold Ocean Currents
  • 6:53 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Julie Zundel

Julie has taught high school Zoology, Biology, Physical Science and Chem Tech. She has a Bachelor of Science in Biology and a Master of Education.

Have you ever wondered why temperatures vary around the Earth? This lesson will examine some factors, including latitude, elevation, atmospheric circulation, differences in heat between land and water, along with ocean currents that affect temperature variance.


Marlie the Meteorologist is back to teach you everything you want to know about temperature! Now, if you don't remember, Marlie studies the weather and is going to take us around the world in order to investigate factors that influence the temperature, or how much heat energy is present on the Earth. So, pack your bags because we're about to head out!


Let's start at the equator. Wow, it's nice and warm! The first thing that influences the temperature on Earth is the latitude, or how far north or south a place is from the equator. The equator is at a latitude of 0 degrees. Let's zoom in and check out a city that's pretty near the 0 degree latitude mark. Quito, Ecuador falls at 0.2333 degrees south latitude. The average monthly temperature only varies by about 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit throughout the year and high temperatures hover around 70 degrees Fahrenheit. I don't know about you, but Marlie seems to be enjoying herself in Quito!


Why is it so warm at Quito? Because the Earth is round, the equator receives a lot of heat energy from the sun. The further north or south you go from the equator, the less heat energy the Earth receives. So, because of its location near the equator, Quito's temperature doesn't vary much and remains relatively warm.

Now let's head north to a latitude of 90 degrees! Brrr… there is less heat energy up here so the temperature is lower. The same holds true at 90 degrees south of the equator! Let's zoom in on a city that's near the North Pole, specifically 82 degrees north. Welcome to Alert, Nunavut in Canada. Unlike Quito at the equator, the average monthly temperatures vary by 66.6 degrees here in Alert. The average winter highs are in the -30s and summer highs are in the 40s. So, due to its location near the North Pole, Alert experiences huge variations in temperature as well as frigid temperatures. By comparing Quito to Alert, you can see what a big deal latitude plays in temperature! I can tell Marlie is ready to get out of here!


Altitude & Elevation

Next, let's look at altitude and elevation and how they influence the Earth's temperature. Now, before we climb any mountains, let's get our vocabulary straight because altitude and elevation are often interchanged. Altitude is the distance above a given point, whereas elevation is the distance above sea level. You often hear elevation used for geographical features, like a mountain, and altitude used while traveling in a plane.

So, why does the temperature change as you gain elevation? Grab your climbing gear, let's ascend a mountain and find out! As you climb, you may start to notice it's getting colder. Why? Well, as you ascend, the molecules in the air get further and further apart and are less likely to collide with one another. When molecules collide, heat is exchanged, so, with no collisions, there is less heat energy and the air cools.

As we increase elevation, it gets colder. The same would hold true for altitude. As you gain altitude (say, in a plane), the temperature decreases. If you check out mountain communities, you'll notice their average temperatures are quite a bit lower than areas at sea level. Let's get off this mountain and check out our next factor that influences the Earth's temperature!

Atmospheric Circulation Patterns

Atmospheric circulation patterns are due to uneven heating of the Earth as well as the Earth's rotation and cause cells of winds throughout the Earth. These winds redistribute heat. For example, warm air from the equator heads north where it cools, sinks, and heads back to the poles. Of course, it's a little more complicated and there are different cells, but you get the general idea. These cells cause wind, like the Polar Easterlies, which can be found near the poles. The Polar Easterlies bring cold, frigid air into that region.

Or, closer to the equator, you can find trade winds that blow warm, steady wind. Without these circulation patterns, heat would not be distributed and the temperature ranges on Earth would vary even more dramatically than they already do! Okay, okay, Marlie can't wait to get to the next factor that influences the Earth's temperature. Let's head to the California coast to check out the difference in heating between land and water.

Land & Water

It's a gorgeous day in San Francisco, and Marlie is taking in the sights! But, how will San Francisco teach us about the different heating and cooling of land and water? Excellent question! You might notice that during a hot, sunny day, a body of water feels chilly. But, at night, the same body of water feels warm. This is because, compared to land, water takes a really long time to warm up. That's why the water feels cold compared to the sand when it's a hot, sunny day. But, on the flip side, the water takes a long time to cool down. So, at night, when the sand is cold, the water feels warm.

In many coastal regions, like San Francisco, the ocean regulates the temperature on land. Remember, it takes water a long time to warm up! In the summer, when San Francisco gets warm, the ocean is a little cooler. This cold ocean water prevents the temperature from getting too high during those hot summer days.

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