This article originally ran in The Wenatchee World in February 2018.
There’s a reason we talk about the weather so much – it affects everyone, every day! Here in North Central Washington, where we experience all four seasons, the climate affects almost everything we do.
There’s so much we can learn about weather and climate – all it takes is a few tools and a little bit of observation.
What are weather and climate?
Here on our planet, we’re lucky enough to have an atmosphere. Our atmosphere keeps us at a relatively comfortable temperature – compared to space at least – and allows us to breathe and live.
The atmosphere is a thin layer of air that covers the earth. The air is made up of different gases – things like oxygen, carbon dioxide, water vapor (like mist and clouds), and many more. These gases interact with each other, and with the land and water that make up the earth’s surface, and with the heat from the sun, in complicated ways.
Those complicated interactions cause the weather – which could be described very simply as “what the atmosphere is doing in a certain place at a certain time.” We describe the weather by talking about how hot, cold, rainy, snowy, windy, cloudy, or humid it is (and what the atmospheric pressure is). It’s a short-term thing.
So what is climate, then? It’s the average weather in a certain area over a long period of time. It’s a long-term thing. The climate can be the climate of a very small place, a large region, or even the whole earth. For example, when talking about the climate in our area, we might say that in North Central Washington, in February we usually have cold temperatures, with lows below freezing and high temperatures in the 30’s and low 40’s. Multiple feet of snow falls near the crest of the mountains and less as we move further east. We know this because we have collected data for many years – so we know what to expect.
Explore a microclimate. A microclimate is the climate in a very small area. Here in North Central Washington, the climate changes as you get farther from the Cascade Mountains. Next time you head up into the mountains, notice the difference in weather compared to the valleys – how much snow, how cloudy or foggy it is, how warm or windy it is. Why do you think this is? What other microclimates do you notice?
Build a weather station at your home. You can use a thermometer and a rain gauge to start. To expand, use a wind vane to measure the direction of the wind, a barometer (atmospheric pressure), an anemometer (wind speed), and a hygrometer (relative humidity). Have your kids keep a weather journal and record your data – including the kinds of clouds. Eventually, you may be able to tell what to expect from your observations.
Make a cloud in a jar. Take a glass jar with a lid, a match (or aerosol hairspray if you would rather avoid fire), ice cubes, and hot water. Pour about an inch of hot water into the jar. Swirl the water around carefully to heat up the jar. Turn the lid of the jar upside down and put the ice cubes in the lid. Set the upside down lid on top of the jar for a few seconds. (We are trying to cool down the air in the top of the jar.) Light the match, lift the lid and hold the match inside the jar, then blow it out so that some of the smoke stays in the jar. (You can also spray a small amount of hairspray in the jar.) Quickly replace the lid to trap the smoke or hairspray inside. Watch the cloud form. Remove the lid to release the cloud! Why does this work? Research “what are clouds?” to find out!