Students learn about the climate zones of the world by interpreting graphed data and then identifying climate zones described in postcards.
Developed by Lisa Gardiner at the UCAR Center for Science Education.
Upper elementary (grades 3-5)
- Preparation time: about 1 hour to gather supplies and make copies
- Class time: two or three hours of class time
Obtain and combine information to describe climates in different regions of the world.
Education Standards Addressed
- NGSS PE 3-ESS2-2: Obtain and combine information to describe climates in different regions of the world.
- NGSS DCI ESS2-D: Climate describes a range of an area's typical weather conditions and the extent to which those conditions vary over years.
- NGSS Crosscutting: Patterns of change can be used to make predictions.
- NGSS Practices: Analyzing and interpreting data, obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information
- RI.3.7 Use information gained from illustrations (e.g., maps, photographs) and the words in a text to demonstrate understanding of the text.
- RI.4.7 Interpret information presented visually, orally, or quantitatively.
- CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.5.1 Quote accurately from a text when explaining what the text says explicitly and when drawing inferences from the text.
- CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.4.1 Refer to details and examples in a text when explaining what the text says explicitly and when drawing inferences from the text.
- CCSS.Math.Content.3.MD.B.3 and B4: Represent and interpret data (interpreting bar graphs and line plots)
- Geography 4: The physical and human characteristics of places (Describe and compare the physical characteristics of places.)
- Copy Worksheet 1 and Worksheet 2 for each student.
- Print the Climate Graphs single-sided for each group of 2-4 students (which will allow students to visually compare all climate zones). You may wish to laminate these for repeated use.
- Print the Postcards from Grandma double-sided and cut out. You may want to print these on cardstock and laminate for repeated use.
- Either print the Map of Climate Zones in color or get it ready to project for students to see.
- Show students photos of a tropical location and a polar location. Ask students what sort of weather they expect to find in the locations (e.g., Which one is colder? Which is warmer? Where does rain fall? Where does snow fall?). Ask students what type of clothing they would bring to each location. Tell students that the photos show places where the patterns of weather are different.
- Explain that the usual pattern of weather is called climate. Different places have different climates. A region's climate impacts the types of plants and animals that can live there.
- Tell students that in this activity they will learn about five climate zones in the world.
Part 1: Exploring Climate Zones
- Hand out the Five Climate Graphs to each group of 2-4 students. You may wish to provide students with rulers to help them read across the graphs.
- Explain that climate graphs provide information about how average temperature and precipitation in a place change throughout the year. Introduce students to the climate graphs for temperature and precipitation. Review the graph axes. The horizontal axis includes the months of the year. The vertical axis represents either the amount of precipitation or the temperature.
- Hand out Worksheet 1: What I Know About Climate Zones to each student. Instruct students to write what they can see in the climate graph for each climate zone. Is it rainy compared to other climates? Is it hot compared to other climates? Are there seasons that change through the year? Have students consider what they would pack for a trip to each climate zone – have them focus on the clothes that they would wear and the other supplies that they would need (an umbrella, sunscreen, etc.).
Part 2: Grandma’s Postcards
- Tell students to pretend they have a grandmother who is a world traveler. She sends postcards from the places she visits. Ask students to use their notes about climate zones on Worksheet 1 to figure out the climate of the places that grandma travels based on her postcards.
- Provide the five postcards to each group and a copy of Worksheet 2: Grandma’s Climate Travels to each student.
- Ask students to share the climate zone that they think each postcard is from and what information from Grandma’s postcard was helpful for figuring out the climate zone.
- Show students the map of climate zones with grandma’s travel locations. Discuss. Ask students whether they see any patterns in the location of climate zones around the world. (Students may notice that warmer climates are found closer to the equator and colder climates are closer to the poles. They may also notice that there is a difference between coastal and inland areas.)
Background & Extensions
The climate of a region is defined as the typical pattern of temperature and precipitation through the year. Climate is described using the average of 30 years of weather data for a location. Temperature and precipitation, recorded each day by meteorologists, are averaged for each day of the year. This allows us to know what it is usually like in July or November in a particular location. The actual weather on any given day can be very different than the average. For example, if there is a winter storm moving through a region, temperatures will likely drop to below average for that time of year.
About climate zones
The climate zones included in this activity are loosely based on the Köppen Climate Classification System. While the Köppen system is much more complex and includes many subcategories, the five climates used in this activity are the main groups used by the Köppen system:
- A: Tropical
- B: Arid (called Dry in this activity)
- C: Temperate (called Mild in this activity)
- D: Continental (called Cool in this activity)
- E: Polar and Alpine (called Polar in this activity)
There are many climates within each of the five Köppen Climate groups and each has slightly different graphs of how temperature and precipitation vary through an average year. Specific locations will have slightly different climate graphs even if they are within the same climate zone. For the purposes of introducing elementary students to the five general climate groups, graphs used in this activity are based on the climate of the locations where Grandma traveled (Siberia, Egypt, Alaska, Spain, and Brazil) in Part 2 of the activity.
Reading climate graphs
A climate graph (also called a climograph) is used to describe how temperature and precipitation vary through the months of the year in a particular location. Typically, a climate graph is one graph that shows precipitation totals as a histogram (bar chart) and overlays temperature variations as a line graph. For simplicity, this activity introduces histograms of precipitation and line graphs of temperature on separate graphs. If you look up the climate graph for your location, you will likely find the two graphs combined. (Instructions for finding your local climate graph are in the Weather and Climate Data Exploration.)
Why are there variations in climate?
Latitude is the main reason that there are different climate zones around the world. Near the equator, temperatures are consistently warm throughout the year. In the polar regions, temperatures are colder. Between the equatorial regions and the poles, in the mid-latitudes, climates typically have strong seasonal differences.
How close an area is to an ocean also affects climate. Coastal areas in the mid-latitudes often have cooler summers and warmer winters than areas that are inland. The ocean also provides a source of moisture. Altitude also has an impact on climate, with high altitude locations having a cooler climate than lower elevations.
How do biomes relate to climate zones?
The types of plants that live in an area usually define biomes, which are large naturally-occurring groups of living things adapted to survive in a particular climate zone. For example, conifer forests called the taiga biome are characteristic of Cool Climate (Köppen Climate Zone D: Continental), while the broadleaf forest biome and grasslands are characteristic of Mild Climate (Köppen Climate Zone C: Temperate). The rainforest biome is characteristic of Tropical Climate, while the tundra biome is characteristic of Polar Climate. Have students look at the pictures on Grandma’s postcards to start a conversation about how biomes relate to climate zones.
- Where I Went on a Pretend Vacation: Have students research an area’s regional climate and create a postcard or give a short presentation about the climate of the place as if they went there.
- Explore the Biomes: The climate zones activity is a natural introduction to biomes of the world since climate plays a large role in the types of plants and animals that can live in a place.