Just because it’s been a really cold summer or we’ve had loads of snow or storms, doesn’t mean that climate change isn’t happening. Actually, it can be signs of the opposite.
The differences between climate and weather:
“Climate is what you expect, weather is what you get”.
Climate and weather are two separate beings, although inextricably linked. The difference between them is the timescale they act on.
Weather is the changes you notice happening in the atmosphere in the short-term e.g. minute-by-minute, hourly, daily, weekly or even monthly. Rain, wind, sunshine, snow and changes in temperature are all things you notice happening, and are descriptions of the weather. Weather can change rapidly, and forecasters are notoriously criticised when rain comes and they didn’t predict it.
Climate, on the other hand, describes what weather will be like over a longer period of time, from years to decades. Climate is the average of weather over time and space. When talking about climate, we tend to discuss the average temperature, rainfall or wind speeds over a particular time period.
When you have a heatwave or a very snowy period, you’re seeing changes in the weather. This does not necessarily mean that these are showing changes in climate. They’re short term changes, and the patterns wouldn’t necessarily be reflected on a longer timescale.
So what is climate change? And what’s global warming?
Climate change is when there are significant changes within long-term weather patterns (climate). These changes in climate can be as a result of both natural (e.g. volcanic eruptions) and human-caused (anthropogenic) factors (e.g. emissions of greenhouse gases). Over recent decades, scientists have found that humans are increasingly causing climate change, as a result of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
Global warming is taking place as a result of human-caused GHG emissions. It is caused by the ‘greenhouse effect’, where human emissions of GHGs and other pollutants trap heat within the earth’s atmosphere. Since pre-industrial times, the earth has warmed by 1°c. This may not sound like a lot, but if this continues to rise as it is predicted to, this could cause catastrophic effects on human and animal life. In many places, it already is.
So why are we seeing more extremes?
Although climate change and global warming are often used to describe the same phenomenon, climate change is more complex than rising temperatures.
Climate change does result in the earth warming, but it can also cause extreme weather events such as hurricanes, high snowfall, heatwaves, cold snaps, drought or flooding. This is mainly explained by the link between heat and extreme weather, with rising air and sea temperatures fuelling extreme events.
Increased volumes of water trapped in the air, due to evaporation in higher heats, can cause higher snowfall when temperature drop. Our weather patterns are changing as a result of climate change, and extreme weather events are happening increasingly frequently. A flood that was a ‘once in a hundred year event’, may now be becoming a ‘once in five year event’. These extremes can put life at risk.
A snowier and colder winter than normal, does not prove that the climate is not changing. Actually, it can be a symptom of the opposite.
- National Centers for Environmental Information – What’s the difference between weather and climate? – https://www.ncei.noaa.gov/news/weather-vs-climate
- Met Office – Climate – https://www.metoffice.gov.uk/weather/climate
- NASA – What’s the difference between weather and climate? – https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/noaa-n/climate/climate_weather.html
- NASA – What is climate change? – https://www.nasa.gov/audience/forstudents/k-4/stories/nasa-knows/what-is-climate-change-k4.html
- National Geographic – What is global warming, explained – https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/article/global-warming-overview
- IPCC – Global warming of 1.5°c – https://www.ipcc.ch/site/assets/uploads/sites/2/2019/06/SR15_Headline-statements.pdf
- Centre for Climate and Energy Solutions – Extreme weather & climate change: understanding the link and managing the risk – https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Jay-Gulledge/publication/250306443_Extreme_Weather_and_Climate_Change_Understanding_the_Link_and_Managing_the_Risk/links/0046351e9c8578bd54000000/Extreme-Weather-and-Climate-Change-Understanding-the-Link-and-Managing-the-Risk.pdf