Natural Factors That Determine a Region's Climate

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  • 0:05 Climate Introduction
  • 0:41 Weather and Climate
  • 1:25 Atmospheric Effects
  • 3:26 Heat Distribution
  • 4:47 Landforms and Continents
  • 6:20 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Peter Jaeger

Pete currently teaches middle school Science, college level introductory Science, and has a master's degree in Environmental Education.

Climate is influenced by factors like atmosphere, ocean currents, landforms and plate tectonics. This lesson explains how these effects affect our weather patterns, which determine climate.

Climate Introduction

Droughts, superstorms, melting glaciers, oh my! We hear about extreme weather events often and are told that they are the result of a changing climate. Global warming is changing our climate by heating the Earth's temperature, but isn't that weather? What is the difference between weather and climate? Just like weather, climate is affected by many factors that do not change rapidly, like ocean currents, gases in the atmosphere and moving continents. In this lesson, we'll explore how these factors can have a big effect on what we see and the kinds of conditions we can expect.

Weather and Climate

Weather and climate are terms that are related but do not mean the same thing. Weather is the state of the atmosphere at a given time and place. For instance, this would be if it currently is sunny today and what the temperature is, or if we are expecting clouds and rain tomorrow. Weather is what is forecasted from day to day.

Climate is the long-term average of the weather of an area. This would refer more to the type of weather you could expect at different times of the year. Normally, the northern U.S. can expect snow and below-freezing temperatures in winter and warm summers with some humidity. These expected weather patterns together with other factors make up our climate, which generally remains unchanged over the span of a human lifetime.

Atmospheric Effects

There are many factors that can influence the climate of a region. One of the main things that determines the climate of an area is the circulation of air in the atmosphere. The atmosphere is the blanket of air that surrounds the Earth. The atmosphere circulates air in patterns or in a band caused by the heating of the Earth by the sun and the Earth's rotation. Air near the tropical regions rises as it gets heated, while cooler air near the poles sinks. Warmer air has more energy and is less dense than cooler air, which causes this rising and sinking action. However, the Earth's rotation also has an effect on this movement of air by breaking the rising and sinking action of air into six distinct sections. These bands alternate the direction of wind flow, much like the bands that are seen on Jupiter.

Two different wind patterns, the trade winds and the prevailing westerlies
Wind Map

For instance, near the equator, the prevailing winds move from east to west and are known as the trade winds, shown in yellow and brown on the map. Next, the blue arrows show the bands of air that travel west to east - the dominant wind pattern for the United States - and are known as the prevailing westerlies. This difference can be seen any time a hurricane gets close to us and we begin tracking it. As the storm forms in the Atlantic, it moves from east to west, caught up in the trade winds. As it moves north near North America, its direction will begin to shift back to the east as it moves into a band of air moving in the opposite direction.

Another effect on climate can come from the composition of the atmosphere itself. The greenhouse effect is when gases naturally trap heat in the atmosphere, moderating the Earth's temperature. These gases include carbon dioxide, methane and water vapor. If the percentage of these gases changes over time due to natural or man-made effects, then the amount of heat held in can change also. This is the concern with global warming - that we are adding too much carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, warming the planet.

Heat Distribution

Another factor that influences climate is how the Earth distributes heat. Large bodies of water along with ocean currents greatly influence a region's climate by holding and redistributing heat through the water, adding moisture to the air and influencing the strength and direction of the wind. Ocean currents move heat around from areas that are warmer to areas that are cooler, adding energy and moisture to new regions. An example of ocean temperature's effect on our weather and climate is the El Niño effect that occurs in the Pacific. In El Niño, a band of water near the equator becomes warmer than normal and transfers extra heat, disrupting normal weather patterns. In the United States, this can cause warmer, drier winters with less snow in the northern states and more rain and cooler temperatures in the southern states.

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