Earth's climate puzzle

Earth's climate and weather can be a real puzzle!

Welcome to Climate4Kids, a blog where you can learn about how climate works, how weather works and many more wonders of planet earth.  

Carbon Dioxide

How much carbon dioxide is in the air?
As shown here:     Move the mouse over the picture to enlarge.

The blue square represents all of the atmosphere.
The black dot in the middle is the amount of carbon dioxide in the air.
Oh, and the amount of carbon dioxide that man is adding to the air? Well, that's the white dot in the middle of the black dot.
97% of the carbon dioxide in the air is produced by nature.
Where does carbon dioxide come from?
It can come from volcanoes, animals breathing and when something is on fire.
Candles produce more carbon dioxide than an electric light bulb producing the same amount of light. The electric light bulb itself does not produce carbon dioxide, but to produce the electricity, sometimes coal is burnt. So when your friends light candles and say they are helping the planet by not using electricity, they are right. Their candles are producing more carbon dioxide which helps the plants grow.
Where does carbon dioxide go?
Most of the carbon dioxide in the air is used by plants. Plants grow because of carbon dioxide, water vapor and sunlight.
Is carbon dioxide pollution?
No. Carbon dioxide is necessary for life to exist. Without carbon dioxide, there would be no life on Earth.
No scientist would describe carbon dioxide as a pollutant. To be a pollutant, it would have to be damaging to life on Earth, carbon dioxide is necessary and vital, for life to exist. Without carbon dioxide or water vapor (sometimes called greenhouse gases) in the air, the entire Earth would be a desert - no plants and no animals.
Can carbon dioxide cause warming of the planet?
No. Like all gases in the air, they slow the rate of warming and they slow the rate of cooling of the planet.
Greenhouse gases reduce the temperature extremes. Like all gases and other particles in the air, carbon dioxide reduces the amount of light and heat from the Sun and reduces the amount of light and heat being lost to space.

Greenhouse gases

The most important greenhouse gas is water vapor, the next most important is carbon dioxide. Some people say that more greenhouse gases will cause the Earth to get hotter, or that there will be extreme temperatures.
So let's compare, places with lots of greenhouse gases, to places with hardly any greenhouse gases. 

 Let's compare - Jungles and Deserts


Which has more plants?
Jungles have many more plants and plant species, because there is much more water and water vapor available.
Deserts have very little rainfall so very few plants can grow.
Answer: Jungles

Which has more animals?
Most animals live where there is food. Many animals eat the fruit and nuts that the jungle provides.
With so few plants and almost no water, very few animals can live in deserts.
Answer: Jungles

Which has more greenhouse gases?
Jungles have lots of water and water vapor and with the animals, produce lots of carbon dioxide.
Deserts have almost no water or water vapor, and very few animals to help produce the carbon dioxide that all plants need.
Answer: Jungles
Which is hotter?
Desert temperatures can be more than 50°C (122°F) during the day.
Jungle temperatures only rise to about 35°C (95°F) during the day.
Answer: Deserts
Which is colder?
Desert temperatures can fall below freezing 0°C (32°F) at night.
Jungle temperatures only fall to about 20°C (68°F) at night.
Answer: Deserts
Which has the most extreme temperatures?
As seen above, deserts have the most extreme temperatures.
Why? because they have less greenhouse gas.
Answer: Deserts

Most plants and animals live where there are greenhouse gases. Very few plants and animals can survive with low levels of greenhouse gas.

Greenhouse gases don't increase the temperature, they reduce the temperature extremes.
So if we are interested in having a healthy planet should we have more greenhouse gas or less greenhouse gas?
Less water vapor and less carbon dioxide will lead to deserts.
More water vapor and more carbon dioxide will lead to a healthy growing planet.
If it weren't for greenhouse gases, there would be no animals, jungles or forests, only desert.

Plants need water vapor and carbon dioxide to survive and we animals need the plants.
So when you read or hear, "greenhouse gas", think life-giving gas.



Clouds are a fascinating and important part of climate. During the daytime, clouds keep us cooler, especially at high altitudes. At night, clouds keep the earth warmer. Temperatures on a cloudy day into a cloudy night drop less than if the clouds clear out.

Clouds are made of condensed water or ice. They form when rising air cools and water vapor clumps together forming droplets. The droplets will remain as part of the cloud until they become too heavy and fall to the ground as rain. If the temperature is cold enough, it falls as snow or hail. The droplets need a solid surface to condense on--dust or other microscopic particles in the air.

Clouds appear white because their water droplets scatter all wavelengths of light. (See the animated feature "Light and Colour" on this blog for more information). Storm clouds are gray because they are much thicker than white clouds and they block more light.

There are many kinds of clouds--cirrus (curly or fibrous), stratus (flat or layered) and cumulus (puffy and stacked up). After these three groupings are other combinations, using cirro (high clouds), alto (mid-level clouds) and nimbo (low level clouds). There are many combinations of high/low and shapes. Some clouds have more than one shape, resulting in names such as stratocumulus (partially flat and partially fluffy).
Cirrus and Stratus clouds

Cumulus clouds
When you see clouds moving, the wind is pushing them. The clouds can travel great distances at high speeds with enough wind.

Clouds produce three basic kinds of precipitation: rain, snow and hail. If the precipitation does not reach the ground, it is called virga. Also, there's the oft used term "snain" for rain mixed with snow (weathermen don't use this usually.) Then there's sleet and freezing rain. Sleet is composed of small ice pellets that hit the ground. Freezing rain is snow that melts on the way down and then freezes on roadways, trees, etc. Sleet is much smaller pellets than hail and has different way of forming.

Rain falls if the temperature is above freezing (0 degrees C, 32 degrees F) all the way to the ground. If temperatures are below freezing, snow falls. Sleet occurs when the snow melts on the way down, then refreezes in the air before hitting the ground. Freezing rain (some people call this an "ice storm") can make driving very difficult due to slick roads and it can break trees limbs and power lines if the ice gets thick and heavy enough. This is made worse if wind is involved. The wind stresses the ice-covered lines and trees, causing more damage than the ice alone.
Freezing rain

Freezing rain
Snow is water droplets that freeze into flakes, generally with six sides (not all flakes end up fully formed and some deform on the way to the ground). It is said that no two snow flakes are alike. That may be true because so many droplets of water are involved in the formation of the flakes. It's not something we can really prove, but mathematical calculations seem to back up the idea. Snow falling on the mountains can build up and form or maintain glaciers. Glaciers form when the weight of snow is great enough to create ice under the snow. Mountain snow pack, which is the amount of snow left at the end of winter, is important for people as it is used for drinking water in some countries and for irrigation water. If snow melts too quickly off the mountain, flooding can happen. The same is true for large snow drifts anywhere. If the temperature rises too quickly, the water has no where to go.

Hail forms when wind pushes snowflakes back up into the clouds. The flake picks up more and more ice and eventually becomes heavy enough to fall to earth. Hail can ranges from BB size to grapefruit size. Small hail can be very hard on paint and some plants. Larger hail is damaging to most things. The size of the hail depends on the speed of the updraft wind (wind pushing upward into the cloud). This is one reason why you see large hail right before tornadoes--the wind speed is high enough. Hail can be very dangerous. If you're outside and hail starts, go inside or hide under something sturdy. The larger the hail, the more the danger. Hail can fall at such a rate a snowplough is needed to clear roads. Fortunately, hail is one of the less common weather events.

Plowing hail with a snowplow
There are some special clouds: mammatus (low hanging bulges), lenticular (disks that resemble flying saucers--these form over mountains) and fog (a cloud on the ground).

Mammatus clouds

Fog (from a distance)

Next time you notice clouds, take a moment to check them out. Clouds help level out temperatures on earth and provide rain and snow needed by people and plants. And they are just interesting to watch!


What do we mean by "climate"?

An earlier blog entry (The Many Faces of Climate) looked at climate in a general way. When we talk about climate, what do we mean? There are many answers, but simplest is the usual weather in an area. For example, in the northern countries like Canada, Finland, Norway, and Siberia it is quite cold much of the year. At the poles, Antarctica and the Arctic, it's always cold. Then there are places that are almost always warm like Guam or Hawaii. Places can have one to four seasons. This is the temperature component of climate.

Climate includes how much rain and snow occurs over a long period of time in a specific area. Most people are familiar with places like the Sahara Desert, where it rarely rains. There is a place in Chile that is considered the driest on earth, the Atacama desert. It goes without rain for 4 years or more at a time, and there may have been one period of nearly 200 years without rain. In 2011, it both rained and snowed there, a rare weather event that just happened to occur in our lifetimes.

Mountain snow

Snow is the more common form of precipitation in high altitudes and some of the more northern areas. In high altitudes, snow may stay on the mountain top year round. Sometimes, glaciers form. Glaciers are not as permanent as they may seem. Glaciers come and go at different rates due in most part to the amount of snowfall, which builds up and compresses to form ice. Some last for many years, some do not. For a while, people were worried the Himalayan glaciers were melting (the Himalayas are a mountain range in Asia). This could result in flooding, especially if lakes were to break free and run down the mountains. Also, people use the water which does naturally melt off in the summer for a source of water. It turned out that measurements with satellites showed there was no serious melting and some of these glaciers may even be growing. Sometimes scientists report things either without enough checking first or later on, better ways to measure things come along. And we find out our planet is not all that fragile.

High wind
Climate also includes wind, how much sun places have on average and how much humidity there is. Places around the equator tend to be sunny. Places like England have a lot of rain and thus a lot of humidity. There are places with 40 mile an hour winds and places with gentle breezes.
Wind combined with drought

What affects climate? Many, many things. In later posts, we will write about some of these things. Does climate change? Of course. Nothing stays the same. Sometimes climate changes quickly and sometimes it takes million of years. People have been very good at adapting to many of these changes. If the world gets warmer, we adapt. If it gets colder, we adapt. We can move around and/or build better shelters and find more efficient ways to produce food. Sometimes it's not easy, but we have managed.

We study climate so we can learn about how it works and maybe be able to predict a few things in the future. Predicting changes in the climate is not easy. Most of the time, we have to just build our homes stronger, or higher, and grow whatever food works well in the area. We can build where floods are not so common or elevate our homes in case of floods. Since we can buy food, fuel, clothing and most anything else we cannot produce in one place from some other place in the world, regional weather events don't have the effects that the Dust Bowl and the Little Ice Age did. Climate has always included floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, sunshine, warm weather and cold weather. There are few, if any, places on earth where the weather/climate is always ideal.  

Don't be Afraid

The Climate Changes Naturally.

For thousands of years, people were frightened and misled by those who claim to be able to see the future.
The people were misled because they didn’t understand science.

A few people were smarter and they tried to show the truth about nature.
So the king stood and ordered the tide to stop.

But still some people continued to imagine all kinds of terrible disasters to frighten people.

And they imagine even more ways for the world to end.

Even today, the doomsayers will tell you that carbon dioxide will cause terrible storms, tidal waves, floods and droughts, leading to death and destruction.

Where have we heard this before?

Yes, even today, those who are afraid, want you to go without electricity, TVs, cars, phones, computers, lights, heaters, air coolers and hot water. They want to tell you what you can and what you can't have. They want to tell you what to do.

Today, we know better than to believe the doomsayers and the fortune tellers.
We know that we cannot control the weather or the climate, nor can we see the future.

We also know that carbon dioxide makes plants grow, which in turn, provides food and oxygen which keeps all animals and people alive.
When someone tries to tell you that they know what will happen in 100 or even just 10 years from now, you know that they are not talking science.
So, smile politely at them and continue enjoying the incredible beauty and variety of nature.

This document includes artwork developed by Carnegie Mellon University and Electronic Arts Inc.
T Model Ford image originator - Alden Jewell - published on

The many faces of climate on Earth

Our earth is always changing. If you ask your grandparents, they might tell you the world was colder and snowier. Maybe your mom and dad remember cold and snow, too. You haven't seen much snow and it's not very cold. Have the old folks lost it? Are they imagining the past? Why are things so different now?

Or are they that different?

Most of us know what weather is—rain, snow, wind sun. Weather changes a lot. It can be sunny, then rain again all in one day. Sometimes it snows, then rains, then snows. It's what makes dressing for school hard. Will it be cold or hot by the end of the day?

When your mom and dad talk about how cold winter was and how much snow there was, this is closer to climate. 

Climate is just what the weather is in one place over a long time. So the climate in Wyoming is cold in the winter.  The climate in Arizona is not as cold as Wyoming. The climate at the north and south poles is always cold. At the middle of the earth, the equator, the climate is always warm.

Arizona in January

Wyoming in January

A later segment will talk about why the earth has seasons. Climate does not change as much as weather. That doesn't mean it doesn't change at all. Sometimes, there's a lot of rain, sometimes not. Same for snow.

Our climate is ever-changing, just as everything on this earth is. Maybe we would all feel safer and happier if things stayed the same.

Or maybe we would just get bored!

The ever-changing climate makes life more interesting.

And interesting is better!