Weather and Climate Data Exploration
Students explore the relationship between weather and climate by graphing weather temperature data and comparing with climate averages.
Students understand that weather is highly variable day-to-day, and climate is not.
- Students explore weather and climate data by creating a graph
- Students define and contrast weather and climate
- Weather and climate data (see preparation below)
- Graph paper, pencils, rulers (or graphing software like Excel)
- Find high and low temperature data over the past 10 days or month at The Weather Channel, Weather Underground, or your local news source.
- Find your local climate data.
- There are many ways to find climate averages for your region. You can get in touch with your state climatologist or local news forecasters. You can search for climate data at the NOAA Climate Data Center or Weather Underground.
- One of the simplest ways to find your local climate data (as of July 2013) is via The Weather Channel. Follow the directions below to access climate data. (The steps are outlined in the graphic.)
- Search your zip code or city and state.
- Click “Monthly” on left.
- Click “Averages” below the month calendar to see a summary of your regional climate.
- To get a table of data instead of monthly averages, choose the table tab above the graph.
- To see daily averages for a particular month, choose “daily averages” from the drop-down menu (top left).
Introduction and motivation
Ask students about the day’s weather. Prompt them to describe aspects such as temperature, precipitation, cloud cover, and wind. Ask students, is today’s weather normal? Is it what you’d expect?
Tell students that in this activity they will explore how weather and climate are similar and different by exploring weather and climate temperature data over the past week or 10 days. They will compare daily temperature with averaged climate data.
Have students list what they know about weather and climate. Explain that weather is the current atmospheric conditions, including temperature, rainfall, wind, and humidity. Climate is the usual weather conditions based on 30 years of averaged weather data for a location. Climate is what you expect. Weather is what actually happens.
Students create graphs of (1) high and low temperature climate averages over a month and (2) high and low temperature weather data over the past month or 10 days. Prompt students to put temperature on the Y-axis and time on the X-axis. Help students to consider what range of temperature would work well on the axis before they start graphing data.
Use of evidence to critique claims
Have students refer to their graphed data and discuss the following questions.
- Which is more variable: this week’s high and low temperatures or the climate averaged high and low temperatures? Why?
- Is the weather temperature data warmer, cooler, or about the same as the average?
- If you were asked to predict the temperature for tomorrow, which data would you find the most useful: the previous day’s temperature or the average temperature for that day?
Give students the following scenario, have them write a paragraph about answers to the questions, and then discuss as a group.
Aaron and Gracie are on their way to school on an April morning. Once they get on the city bus, Aaron peels off his jacket.
“I’m hot,” he says.
“I thought it was supposed to be cool today like it was yesterday,” says Gracie as she unwinds her scarf. It was cool the day before, but now the temperature is climbing. It’s going to be warm.
“It’s hot today because of global warming,” says an elderly woman sitting in the row in front of them. She turns to look at Aaron and Gracie and shakes her head back and forth with gloom.
“No it’s not,” says a man across the aisle angrily. “It’s just the weather, not the climate.”
“Climate and weather are the same,” says a woman in a business suit who is on her way to work.
“No it’s not,” calls the bus driver over his shoulder.
Aaron and Gracie look at each other with confusion. They didn’t mean to start an argument. If you were on the bus with these people, how would you respond?
- If yesterday was cool and today is warm, could that be due to global warming?
- Are weather and climate the same or different? How would you respond to the people on the bus?
- How would you figure out what weather is normal for that time of year and that location?
- Can you think of a way that we can use weather data to figure out how climate is changing?
- Use this activity before an exploration of global climate change. To get started, have students look for local climate change projections on Weather Underground.
- Do this exercise in cooperation with another school in a different geographic location comparing weather data to emphasize regional climate differences.
- Participate in the GLOBE Program in which students around the world collect and share data about the environment.
Weather is the mix of events that happen each day in our atmosphere. Weather is different in different parts of the world and changes over minutes, hours, days, and weeks. Most weather happens in the troposphere, the part of Earth’s atmosphere that is closest to the ground.
The weather events happening in an area are controlled by changes in air pressure. Air pressure is caused by the weight of the huge numbers of air molecules that make up the atmosphere. Typically, when air pressure is high, skies are clear and blue. The high pressure causes air to flow down and fan out when it gets near the ground, preventing clouds from forming. When air pressure is low, air flows together and then upward where it converges, rising, cooling, and forming clouds. Remember to bring an umbrella with you on low pressure days because those clouds might cause rain or other types of precipitation.
The average weather pattern in a place over several decades is called climate. Different regions have different regional climates. It is the average weather in a place over thirty years. To describe the regional climate of a place, people often tell what the temperatures are like over the seasons, how windy it is, and how much rain or snow falls. The climate of a region depends on many factors including the amount of sunlight it receives, its height above sea level, the shape of the land, and how close it is to oceans. Since the equator receives more sunlight than the poles, climate varies depending on its distance from the equator.
The graph above shows temperature on the Fourth of July in Boulder, Colorado, over several decades. Notice how the white bars stay generally, but not exactly within the range of the average high temperature (87 F) and the average low temperature (56 F).
Credit: Lisa Gardiner/UCAR
However, we can also think about the climate of an entire planet. Global climate is a description of the climate of a planet as a whole, with all the regional differences averaged. Overall, global climate depends on the amount of energy received by the Sun and the amount of energy that is trapped in the system. These amounts are different for different planets. Scientists who study Earth's climate and climate change study the factors that affect the climate of our whole planet.
While the weather can change in just a few hours, climate changes over longer timeframes. Climate events, like El Niño, happen over several years, small-scale fluctuations happen over decades, and larger climate changes happen over hundreds and thousands of years. Today, climates are changing. Our Earth is warming more quickly than it has in the past according to the research of scientists. Hot summer days may be quite typical of climates in many regions of the world, but global warming is causing Earth's average global temperature to increase. The amount of solar radiation, the chemistry of the atmosphere, clouds, and the biosphere all affect Earth's climate.
As global climate changes, weather patterns are changing as well. While it is impossible to say whether a particular day’s weather was affected by climate change, it is possible to predict how patterns might change. For example, scientists predict more severe weather events as climate warms. Also, they predict more hot summer days and fewer extreme cold winter days.
This activity is included in theCLEAN Climate and Energy Resource Collection, a peer-reviewed collection of activities, curriculum, videos, and other tools for teaching.
This activity was developed by Lisa Gardiner at the UCAR Center for Science Education utilizing data from The Weather Channel and based on activities from UCAR Climate Discovery and Project LEARN.