Weather and climate: what’s the difference and does it really matter?

A comparison of Arctic ice minimum in 1984 and 2012 demonstrating the reduction in Arctic ice over time. Image assembled from NASA Earth Observatory images by Jesse Allen.

There are several letters supporting the recent student climate march in our letters stream this week. There is also a letter that denies climate change is taking place.

So here’s a quick guide to the difference between the weather and the climate – and it is this difference (distinction) that is key to understanding why and how climate change is taking place.

Weather v climate

Weather is the day-to-day changes in the atmosphere and includes extreme, unusual weather events.

Climate is the weather over a long period of time. A few single outlying weather events are just that – weather events.

Therefore, to determine if climate change is actually taking place we need to look at the overall change in weather patterns over time. It is looking at these weather patterns which makes it clear that the atmosphere ‘on average’ and ‘over time’ is changing.

So the fact that there were two extreme weather events in 1828 and 1896, as pointed out by our climate change denying letter writer, does not mean that climate change is not happening. It is the increase in average temperature in Australia (and around the world), particularly since 1950, which tells us that climate change is taking place.

This is also supported by a range of other science such as ice core analysis. The science is not saying that the climate hasn’t been hotter or colder than it is today – the science is telling us that the climate is changing and at a faster rate than it normally does.

Dinosaur death

Again it is not to say that there haven’t been extreme climate changes. Take for example the extinction of the dinosaur. One theory is that the dinosaurs died out as a result of the climate changing rapidly as a result of a meteor hitting the Earth. They died out because it happened so quickly that they couldn’t adapt to the change in the climate.

So back to today – the science is clear, the average global temperatures have been rising at a faster rate than they have in millennia, as far as scientists can determine. Which means, there is significantly less time for species to adapt to the changing climate.

The result is we’re in the middle of a mass extinction. That is, the rate at which species are becoming extinct is very rapid in terms of the Earth’s evolutionay history (the first forms of life started around 3.7 billion years ago).

Earth will continue

It is not that the Earth won’t continue as a result of climate change; it is that the Earth won’t continue to support humans and the species that exist today in the stable atmosphere that we have evolved to exist in.

We will experience a rapidly changing climate with more regular and extreme weather events and we will have to take action to reduce our impact that is changing the climate, adapt to this changed world, or become extinct ourselves.

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