What is Climate? Some say that climate is what you expect and weather is what you get. More formally, climate is the long-term average of temperature, precipitation, and other weather variables at a given location. Every 30 years new averages are calculated by climate scientists. The normal high and low temperatures reported on your local weather forecast come from these 30-year averages. Although climate describes conditions in the atmosphere (hot/cold, wet/dry), the chemistry of the atmosphere, and influences of the ocean, land, and sun all affect these conditions. If we want to understand and predict changes to local or global climate, all of these factors must be monitored.
Monitoring and measuring
We start monitoring of our local climate at an early age. Almost any elementary school student can pick out a coat that will be heavy enough for the winter climate in their area. They may also know that a coat will be more useful in Alaska than a bathing suit. Monitoring the climate can be as simple as these personal observations or as complex as a sensor array on a network of orbiting satellites.
Climate, the atmosphere, and land
Scientists, volunteer observers, and automated instruments from around the worldoffsite link measure climate variables at Earth's surface and above. Some of the data collected include air chemistry, temperature, precipitation, cloud cover, and winds. Instruments carried on balloons and wind profiling radar provide observations from the surface to more than 10 miles high. Satellites constantly capture information about glacier melting rates, winds, temperature, and clouds.
Climate and the ocean
The world's ocean has a huge impact on climate, so we constantly monitor it with satellites, ships, and buoys. Over 4000 buoys and floatsoffsite link take daily measurements at the ocean surface as well as thousands of feet below. Sea surface temperature, chemical composition, ocean currents, sea level, sea ice, and heat content are among the items measured in order to monitor climate.
Climate and the Sun
The amount of solar energy reaching Earth also affects climate. Changes in solar activity and in Earth's orbit influence the amount of solar radiation reaching Earth and how it is distributed among different latitudes and seasons. These cycles have caused major climatic changes through Earth's history. Satellite-based instruments constantly monitor the sun's activity helping to predict the sun's influence on Earth's climate.
Past climate, or paleoclimate, cannot be measured directly. However, solid clues about conditions in the past can be obtained from natural records such as tree rings, coral skeletons, glaciers, fossils, and sediments. These natural records help us learn what the climate was like long before scientific monitoring began.
The resources in this collection provide data, videos, lesson plans, and other resources that will help students understand how and why scientists measure and monitor climate and climate change. Encouraging students to examine, question, and analyze this evidence can enhance the use of higher order thinking skills, allow for scientific conclusions about climate change, and increase their climate literacy.Introductory text compiled from resources provided by the NOAA Climate Program Office and National Centers for Environmental Information.
Page late updated April 2011.