climate, average condition of the atmosphere near the earth's surface over a long period of time, taking into account temperature, precipitation (see rain), humidity, wind, barometric pressure, and other phenomena.

Primary Influence on Climate

The major influence governing the climate of a region is its latitude. A broad latitudinal division of the earth's surface into climatic zones based on global winds includes the equatorial zone, or doldrums, characterized by high temperatures with small seasonal and diurnal change and heavy rainfall; the subtropical, including the trade-wind belts and the horse latitudes, a dry region with uniformly mild temperatures and little wind; the intermediate, the region of the prevailing westerlies that, because of several secondary influences, displays wide temperature ranges and marked changeability of weather; and the polar, a region of short summers and long winters, where the ground is generally perpetually frozen (see permafrost). The transitional climate between those of the subtropical and intermediate zones, known as the Mediterranean type, is found in areas bordering the Mediterranean Sea and on the west coasts of continents. It is characterized by mild temperatures with moderate winter rainfall under the influence of the moisture-laden prevailing westerlies and dry summers under the influence of the horse latitudes or the trade winds.

Secondary Influences on Climate

The influence of latitude on climate is modified by one or more secondary influences including position relative to land and water masses, altitude, topography, prevailing winds, ocean currents, and prevalence of cyclonic storms. Climatic types combining the basic factor of latitude with one or more secondary influences include the continental and the marine. Except in the equatorial region, the continental type is marked by dry, sunny weather with low humidity and seasonal extremes in temperature; noteworthy are the Sahara and Siberia. Marine climates are characterized by small annual and diurnal temperature variation and by copious rainfall on the windward side of coastal highlands and mountainous islands; notable is the mean annual precipitation of 451 in. (1146 cm) at Mt. Waialeale, Hawaii.

The coastal, or littoral, climate is one in which the direction of the prevailing winds plays a dominant role—the east coasts having generally the heavier rainfall in the trade-wind belts, the west coasts in westerly belts. Both coasts have a climate resembling the continental during the season when the wind is blowing from the interior of the continent. An instance of the coastal type, in which the precipitation is accentuated by the nearness of a mountain barrier, is the west coast of North America from Alaska to Oregon, where the mean annual precipitation averages 80 to 100 in. (203 to 254 cm), almost all of it falling during the winter months. Elevation is the dominant factor in mountain and plateau climates, with the temperature decreasing about 3°F per 1,000 ft (1.7°C per 305 m) of ascent and rainfall increasing with altitude up to about 6000 ft (1829 m), then decreasing with further elevation.

Climatology and Climatic Change

Climatology, the science of climate and its relation to plant and animal life, is important in many fields, including agriculture, aviation, medicine, botany, zoology, geology, and geography. Changes in climate affect, for example, the plant and animal life of a given area. The presence of coal beds in North America and Europe along with evidence of glaciation in these same areas indicates that they must have experienced alternately warmer and colder climates than they now possess.

Despite yearly fluctuations of climatic elements, there was, apparently, comparatively little overall change during the period of recorded history prior to the Industrial Revolution. Numerous climatic cycles (variations in weather elements that recur with considerable regularity) have been claimed to exist, including an 11-year cycle related to sunspot activity, but these are generally difficult to confirm. There is currently much concern about how human activities since the Industrial Revolution are changing the earth's climate, and how the global warming that has occurred as a result will alter the natural and human environment. Computer models of climate changes have been developed in recent years; some examine potential parameters that effect global warming or cooling.


See H. H. Lamb, Climate History and the Future (1985); J. R. Herman and R. A. Sun, Weather and Climate (1985).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2018, The Columbia University Press.

Climate: Selected full-text books and articles

Climates and Weather Explained By Edward Linacre; Bart Geerts Routledge, 1997
Atmosphere, Weather, and Climate By Roger G. Barry; Richard J. Chorley Routledge, 2003 (8th edition)
The Way the Wind Blows: Climate, History, and Human Action By Roderick J. McIntosh; Joseph A. Tainter; Susan Keech McIntosh Columbia University Press, 2000
Water and Climate in the Western United States By William M. Lewis Jr University Press of Colorado, 2003
Climate Engineering: Challenges to International Law and Potential Responses By Parson, Edward A Proceedings of the Annual Meeting-American Society of International Law, Vol. 106, Annual 2012
Climate, History, and the Modern World By H. H. Lamb Routledge, 1995 (2nd edition)
Climate, Change and Risk By Thomas E. Downing; Alexander A. Olsthoorn; Richard S. J. Tol Routledge, 1999
Weather, Climate, Culture By Sarah Strauss; Ben Orlove Berg, 2003
Climate since A.D. 1500 By Raymond S. Bradley; Philip D. Jones Routledge, 1995 (Revised edition)
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