Climate variability and climate change: What is the difference?

In one of my first interviews, I remember walking into a brightly-lit room and seeing a panel of 15 scientists sitting at a U-shaped table in front of me. As I took my seat, there was no “Hi” or “How are you?”; the panelist to my right immediately asked me, “Can you tell us the difference between climate variability and climate change?”

I was already nervous by that time, and this question left me stumped.

The problem is, we use the terms “variability” and “change” interchangeably in our daily lives. That creates the confusion.

So I got back home that day, did some research and found that it’s a simple concept with one major difference.

Hello everyone and welcome to another video from Eco-intelligent, where we explore the difference between climate variability and climate change.

What is climate?

Quickly, let us look at the definition of climate. Climate is the average weather pattern in an area over a course of a long period of time. (Weather can usually be described with two things: precipitation and temperature).

The “period of time” is the key part of this definition. When we study climate, we observe weather patterns over 30 years or longer. There are many different terms that we use to describe the climate of an area, and these terms differ in the “period of time” we choose.

The “climate scale” you need

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Climate variability vs. climate change: Remember this time scale!

If you observe precipitation and rainfall over the course of a few days, it is called weather. This is constantly changing.

If you observe weather patterns over the course of a few months, you begin to see patterns. These are called seasons. For example, in the northern hemisphere, May, June and July is the summer season.

When we look at weather patterns over a few years, say 5 or 10 years, we begin to see fluctuations year-on-year. The winter this year wasn’t exactly the same as winter last year, was it? These short-term fluctuations are because of climate variability.

When we begin to see these fluctuations persisting over decades or centuries—then we can call it climate change. For instance, if you compare the temperature of the winter this year with the winter temperature in the last 50 years, you would be observing climate change.

That’s all there is to it!

Remember this time-scale, and you won’t go wrong with this answer in your next exam or interview!

Author: Saurab Babu

Usually found sitting with a good book, nibbling on a piece of dark chocolate. Always ready for a good story.

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