Climate Concepts: Analogies and Useful Descriptions

Analogies are common educational tools. Complex concepts can become more tangible for students and the public when they are compared to something familiar. For example, atoms are the building blocks of matter; DNA is the blueprint of life.

The collection of analogies and useful descriptions below compare complex climate concepts to familiar events and situations. We hope this will be a useful tool for weathercasters, scientists, educators and others who communicate about climate with the public.

Of course, no analogy is perfect. Analogies should be used to illustrate specific concepts and it may even be useful to point out an analogy’s limitations in order to maintain its credibility. The analogies here have been placed into conceptual categories that are most appropriate for their usage.

This is intended to be a continuously updated resource. If you have a favorite analogy you use to communicate about climate, please share!

Image above: Surface temperature anomalies in 2006, with dark red areas being the warmest spots relative to their 30 year (1951-1980) average temperatures.  Image: NASA.

Images are freely available for use on-air, online and in community outreach. Any exceptions will be clearly noted.

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Weather vs. Climate

“Climate is what you expect; weather is what you get,” (Robert Heinlein). “Climate lasts all the time, weather lasts only a few days,” (Mark Twain). Weather tells you what to wear on any given day; climate tells you what wardrobe to have.

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Proportion

Subtle changes in the chemistry or temperature of a complex system, such as changes in the concentration of trace gases in Earth’s atmosphere, can have noticeable and even major effects.

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Risk and Probability

Risk and probability are abstract concepts, yet people employ them in decision making every day. Here are comparisons between everyday risk and probability scenarios and similar climatological concepts.

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Basic Physical Principles

Climate concepts that are potentially confusing made less so by comparisons to everyday activities.

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System Dynamics

Systems are nonlinear, but what does that mean to most people? The story of a butterfly flapping its wings in New York and causing a hurricane is probably the most popular nonlinearity fable.

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Climate Models

What climate models are and what they do is a common source of confusion.

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Investigation

How do we know how Earth’s climate works?

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