IPCC Fourth Assessment Report: Climate Change 2007
Climate Change 2007: Working Group I: The Physical Science Basis

FAQ 1.2 What is the Relationship between Climate Change and Weather?

Frequently Asked Question 1.2

What is the Relationship between Climate Change and Weather?

Climate is generally defined as average weather, and as such, climate change and weather are intertwined. Observations can show that there have been changes in weather, and it is the statistics of changes in weather over time that identify climate change. While weather and climate are closely related, there are important differences. A common confusion between weather and climate arises when scientists are asked how they can predict climate 50 years from now when they cannot predict the weather a few weeks from now. The chaotic nature of weather makes it unpredictable beyond a few days. Projecting changes in climate (i.e., long-term average weather) due to changes in atmospheric composition or other factors is a very different and much more manageable issue. As an analogy, while it is impossible to predict the age at which any particular man will die, we can say with high confidence that the average age of death for men in industrialised countries is about 75. Another common confusion of these issues is thinking that a cold winter or a cooling spot on the globe is evidence against global warming. There are always extremes of hot and cold, although their frequency and intensity change as climate changes. But when weather is averaged over space and time, the fact that the globe is warming emerges clearly from the data.

Meteorologists put a great deal of effort into observing, understanding and predicting the day-to-day evolution of weather systems. Using physics-based concepts that govern how the atmosphere moves, warms, cools, rains, snows, and evaporates water, meteorologists are typically able to predict the weather successfully several days into the future. A major limiting factor to the predictability of weather beyond several days is a fundamental dynamical property of the atmosphere. In the 1960s, meteorologist Edward Lorenz discovered that very slight differences in initial conditions can produce very different forecast results. This is the so-called butterfly effect: a butterfly flapping its wings (or some other small phenomenon) in one place can, in principle, alter the subsequent weather pattern in a distant place. At the core of this effect is chaos theory, which deals with how small changes in certain variables can cause apparent randomness in complex systems.

Nevertheless, chaos theory does not imply a total lack of order. For example, slightly different conditions early in its history might alter the day a storm system would arrive or the exact path it would take, but the average temperature and precipitation (that is, climate) would still be about the same for that region and that period of time. Because a significant problem facing weather forecasting is knowing all the conditions at the start of the forecast period, it can be useful to think of climate as dealing with the background conditions for weather. More precisely, climate can be viewed as concerning the status of the entire Earth system, including the atmosphere, land, oceans, snow, ice and living things (see Figure 1) that serve as the global background conditions that determine weather patterns. An example of this would be an El Niño affecting the weather in coastal Peru. The El Niño sets limits on the probable evolution of weather patterns that random effects can produce. A La Niña would set different limits.

FAQ 1.2 Figure 1

FAQ 1.2, Figure 1. Schematic view of the components of the climate system, their processes and interactions. 

Another example is found in the familiar contrast between summer and winter. The march of the seasons is due to changes in the geographical patterns of energy absorbed and radiated away by the Earth system. Likewise, projections of future climate are shaped by fundamental changes in heat energy in the Earth system, in particular the increasing intensity of the greenhouse effect that traps heat near Earth’s surface, determined by the amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Projecting changes in climate due to changes in greenhouse gases 50 years from now is a very different and much more easily solved problem than forecasting weather patterns just weeks from now. To put it another way, long-term variations brought about by changes in the composition of the atmosphere are much more predictable than individual weather events. As an example, while we cannot predict the outcome of a single coin toss or roll of the dice, we can predict the statistical behaviour of a large number of such trials.

While many factors continue to influence climate, scientists have determined that human activities have become a dominant force, and are responsible for most of the warming observed over the past 50 years. Human-caused climate change has resulted primarily from changes in the amounts of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, but also from changes in small particles (aerosols), as well as from changes in land use, for example. As climate changes, the probabilities of certain types of weather events are affected. For example, as Earth’s average temperature has increased, some weather phenomena have become more frequent and intense (e.g., heat waves and heavy downpours), while others have become less frequent and intense (e.g., extreme cold events).