Types of climate zone

Climate Zones

Building America determines building practices based on climate zones to achieve the most energy savings in a home. This page offers some general guidelines on the definitions of the various climate regions based on heating degree-days, average temperatures, and precipitation. You can also view the Guide to Determining Climate Regions by County.

Hot-Humid

A hot-humid climate is generally defined as a region that receives more than 20 in. (50 cm) of annual precipitation and where one or both of the following occur:

  • A 67°F (19.5°C) or higher wet bulb temperature for 3,000 or more hours during the warmest 6 consecutive months of the year; or
  • A 73°F (23°C) or higher wet bulb temperature for 1,500 or more hours during the warmest 6 consecutive months of the year.

Mixed-Humid

A mixed-humid climate is generally defined as a region that receives more than 20 in. (50 cm) of annual precipitation, has approximately 5,400 heating degree days (65°F basis) or fewer, and where the average monthly outdoor temperature drops below 45°F (7°C) during the winter months.

Hot-Dry

A hot-dry climate is generally defined as a region that receives less than 20 in. (50 cm) of annual precipitation and where the monthly average outdoor temperature remains above 45°F (7°C) throughout the year.

Mixed-Dry

A mixed-dry climate is generally defined as a region that receives less than 20 in. (50 cm) of annual precipitation, has approximately 5,400 heating degree days (65°F basis) or less, and where the average monthly outdoor temperature drops below 45°F (7°C) during the winter months.

Cold

A cold climate is generally defined as a region with approximately 5,400 heating degree days (65°F basis) or more and fewer than approximately 9,000 heating degree days (65°F basis).

Very-Cold

A very cold climate is generally defined as a region with approximately 9,000 heating degree days (65°F basis) or more and fewer than approximately 12,600 heating degree days (65°F basis).

Subarctic

A subarctic climate is generally defined as a region with approximately 12,600 heating degree days (65° basis) or more.

Marine

A marine climate is generally defined as a region that meets all of the following criteria:

  • A mean temperature of coldest month between 27°F (-3°C) and 65°F (18°C)
  • A warmest month mean of less than 72°F (22°C)
  • At least 4 months with mean temperatures more than 50°F (10°C)
  • A dry season in summer. The month with the heaviest precipitation in the cold season has at least three times as much precipitation as the month with the least precipitation in the rest of the year. The cold season is October through March in the Northern Hemisphere and April through September in the Southern Hemisphere.

Climate Zones

Objectives:

1. Describe Earth’s major climate zones.

2. Explain how climate zones are characterized.

Notes:

According to the three cell convection model of each hemisphere the Earth neatly separates itself into three distinct climate zones; the polar, temperate, and the tropical zones. As record keeping and technology advanced, a new system was developed that was based on climate controls and the evapotranspiration index of an area. The new system is called the Kopen system named after Wladimir Koppen. Within the system there are 5 major climate zones each with 2 or more subclimates. Each is defined first by its temperature and second by its percipitation characteristics.

Climate Zone Subclimate Description Unique Features
Polar (E) Tundra (ET) Always cold & dry with short cold summers Covered by permafrost. Many ponds as almost no water absorbs after rain has occured.
Icecap (EF) Freezing temperatures all year little or no daylight in the winter, insolation is largely reflected back to space by the atmosphere and snow
Highland (H) Temperatures vary widely with latitude, elevation and direction of exposed areas Sierra Nevada mountain range
Dry (B) Desert (BW) Less than 10 inches of rain per year with hot days. Large temperature fluctuations between day and night. Evaporation exceeds precipitation. Many animals are nocturnal and plants have a waxy cuticle that minimizes water loss.
Semiarid (BS) Slightly more than ten inches per year Evaporation still exceeds precipitation. The great plains of the midwest are an example.
Humid Tropical (A) Tropical wet (Af & Am) Hot & rainy throughout the year Closest to the equator. Contain the tropical rain forest
Tropical wet & dry (AW) Hot with wet & dry seasons Border the ITCZ & include the savannas.
Moist-mid latitude – mild winters (C) Humid subtropical Hot humid summers and mild winters Southeastern US, warm moist air masses bring thunderstorms
Marine west coast Mild and rainy all year Pacific northwest of the US
Mediterranean Hot & dry summers and mild winters Southwest coast of the US & Mediterranean
Moist-mid latitude – severe winters (D) Humid continental warm summers and cold snowy winters Inland northeastern US
Subarctic Short summers and long snowy winters

(ess.geology.ufl.edu/ess/Notes/ Climatology/worldclimate.jpeg)

(geography.sierra.cc.ca.us/…/ 2_atmosphere/koppen.jpg)

Causes for climate alteration:

Earth’s motions – Earth’s orbit (100,000), tilt (41,000), and wobble (23,000) affect insolation

Plate tectonics – Continents move to different latitudes affecting insolation

Sunspots – may relate to Earth’s changing temperatures

Volcanoes – Volcanic winter, acid rain from SO2 in the atmosphere

Global warming – increases temperatures and moves precipitation belts

The earth’s tilt, rotation and land/sea distribution affect the global weather patterns we observe. While the weather varies from day-to-day at any particular location, over the years, the same type of weather will reoccur. The reoccurring “average weather” found in any particular place is called climate.

German climatologist and amateur botanist Wladimir Köppen (1846-1940) divided the world’s climates into categories based upon general temperature profile related to latitude. He worked with Rudolf Geiger to modify these categories which is known today as the Köppen-Geiger climate classification system The major categories are as follows:

A – Tropical Climates

Tropical moist climates extend north and south from the equator to about 15° to 25° latitude. In these climates all months have average temperatures greater than 64°F (18°C) and annual precipitation greater than 59″.

B – Dry Climates

The most obvious climatic feature of this climate is that potential evaporation and transpiration exceed precipitation. These climates extend from 20°-35° North and South of the equator and in large continental regions of the mid-latitudes often surrounded by mountains.

C – Moist Subtropical Mid-Latitude Climates

This climate generally has warm and humid summers with mild winters. Its extent is from 30°50° of latitude mainly on the eastern and western borders of most continents. During the winter, the main weather feature is the mid-latitude cyclone. Convective thunderstorms dominate summer months.

D – Moist Continental Mid-Latitude Climates

Moist continental mid-latitude climates have warm to cool summers and cold winters. The location of these climates is poleward of the “C” climates. The average temperature of the warmest month is greater than 50°F (10°C), while the coldest month is less than -22°F (-30°C). Winters are severe with snowstorms, strong winds, and bitter cold from Continental Polar or Arctic air masses.

E – Polar Climates

Polar climates have year-round cold temperatures with the warmest month less than 50°F (10°C). Polar climates are found on the northern coastal areas of North America, Europe, Asia, and on the land masses of Greenland and Antarctica.

H – Highlands

Unique climates based on their elevation. Highland climates occur in mountainous terrain where rapid elevation changes cause rapid climatic changes over short distances.

The map (below) shows where these major categories occur in the mainland United States.

The major Köppen zones in the U.S.

Take it to the MAX! Learn about further sub-divisions of these climate zones.

The classical length of record to determine the climate for any particular place is 30 years, as defined by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). The quantities most often observed are temperature, precipitation, and wind.

Tropical zone

Tropical zone

Tropical landscape
Source: wikipedia.org

Characteristics

  • Area
    • Around the equator, from 23.5° further north to 23.5° southern latitude
  • Sun path
    • Sun at the zenith (90°) at least once per year, never lower than 43°
  • Average temperature
    • >20 to 30°C
  • Minimal temperature
    • 0°C (no frost)
  • Maximal temperature
    • Up to 40°C (seldom more)
  • Radiation
    • Positive
  • Daylength
    • 10 to 13.5 hours
  • Precipitation
    • Rain – will be defined by trade winds and its seasonal shift
  • Climate
    • Humid – warm. Often precipitation (humid), sometimes (short) drought. “Day time” instead of “season climate” (daily changes in tempperature are bigger than the annual changes of daily averages).
  • Vegetation
    • Evergreen forests, savannah
  • Properties
    • More than 40% of Earth’s population live in the tropics, with an increasing tendency

Subdivisons of the tropical zone

Within the Tropics there are different vegetation zones. These depend on the time during which there is sufficient water available for plants to grow. The differentiation is made according to the number of dry (arid) and wet (humid) months:

Close to the equator, the humid climate changes to a semi-humid resp. semi-arid tropical climate towards the Tropics, which results in different ecozones, from tropical forests over various types of savannah to the tropical semi-deserts and deserts.
In the humid tropics, which surround the equator with exception of East Africa and the Andes, tropical rain forests form. The semi-humid tropics, in which the dry and wet seasons shape the seasons, are characterised by savannah, dry forests and monsoon forests, which frame the tropical rain forests. Wetlands of the Pantanal in South America also belong to this zone. The arid tropics are deserts and semi-deserts, where only small changes of temperature occur in the course of the year.

Tropical zone: further description

The tropical zone (tropai heliou Sun turning areas) is the warmest climate zone of the Earth. The tropics are:

  • areas of “climate radiation”, which are limited by the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn (23,5° northern and southern latitude) and in which the Sun stands at least once the year at the zenith (highest conditions = 90°C to the ground);
  • in the system of the atmospheric circulation, the range between the two edges between subtropical and tropical high pressure belts of the northern and southern hemispheres of the Earth;
  • the zones on both sides of the equator that are shaped by higher daily temporal (time of day climate) and smaller seasonal variations in temperature (25 °C annual averages); due to that, there is a high irradiation all year around and no thermal seasons can form;
  • the range within which the daily lengths in the course of the year vary only slightly between 10,5 and 13,5 hours.

Hawaii is one of the most ecologically diverse places in the world where you can find climate zones such as tropical monsoon, tundra and desert within an hour drive. This is an extraordinary feat for such a “small” (4,028 square miles surface) place and makes the Big Island even more interesting that it already is (in our slightly biassed opinion).

It also underlines one of the often repeated false quotes about Hawaii:

Hawaii has (10, 11 or 12) of the world’s 13 climate zones

This sounds like fun right, but is it also true? How many climate zones are there actually in the world? And how many of those can you find on the Big Island? Read on the learn the answer to those questions.

Spoiler alert: the quote above is not true. It is based on a misunderstanding of climate classification and sometimes on a lazy reading of figures.

There are 8 climate zones on the Big Island

The number of climate zones depends on the climate classification system that you choose. There are several of these but the most popular one in use is the Köppen climate classification scheme (Wikipedia or explained in Hydrology and Earth System Sciences). In this system there are five major climate zones that are divided into 13 sub-zones, which themselves can again be split into finer groups.

Following Köppen climate classification scheme Hawaii has 4 out of the 5 major climate zones in the world and 8 out of 13 of the sub-zones.

We marked these zones on the map below, which is based on work from J. Jurvik in the 20th-anniversary report for the Mauna Loa observatory . You can see 10 different climate zones listed. However, only 8 of those are distinct ones if classified according to the Köppen system. Temperate “summer dry” and “summer cool” both belong to the temperate dry climate. Tropical “winter dry” and “summer dry” both belong to the tropical dry climate.

Climate map of the Hawaii Island showing 10 different climate zones on the Big Island. Only 8 climates are “independent”. Temperate “summer dry” and “summer cool” both belong to the temperate dry climate. Tropical “winter dry” and “summer dry” both belong to the tropical dry climate

Which climate zones are *not* on the Big Island?

There are only five climate zones that you can not find on the Big Island of Hawaii. These are:

  1. Winter dry (temperate climate)
  2. Winter dry (continental climate)
  3. Summer dry (continental climate)
  4. Continuously wet (continental climate)
  5. Polar ice caps (polar climate)

You can read more about both these missing climate zones, and the 8 climate zones that can be found on Hawaii, below:

The 13 climate zones of the world

You can find all five major climate zones and the 13 sub-zones they are split into below. We also list whether this climate zone can be found in Hawaii as well as the color that identifies it on our climate map.

Humid Tropical climate

In these climates all months have average temperatures greater than 64° F (18° C) and an annual precipitation is greater than 1500 mm. There are 3 sub-zones in this climate types and their designation is based on the seasonal distribution of rainfall:

  • Continuously wet. No dry season, at least 60 mm of rainfall in the driest month. Color on the map
  • Monsoon. Short dry season but sufficient moisture to keep the ground wet throughout the year. Color on the map
  • Dry. Distinct dry season. One month with precipitation less than 60 mm. This zone can be split in “summer-dry” and “winter-dry”. Color on the map for “winter-dry”, color on the map for “summer-dry”

Example of this climate zone on the Big Island: The lush and tropical Hamakua coast.

Dry (arid and semi-arid) climate

In this climate the annual evaporation exceeds annual precipitation. The two main subclasses refer to the dominant vegetation types: steppe and desert.

  • Dry arid (desert) is a true desert climate where evaporation rates are at least twice as high as the precipitation. It covers 12% of the Earth’s land surface. Color on the map
  • Dry semi-arid (steppe) is a grassland climate that covers 14% of the Earth’s land surface. It receives more precipitation than the desert climate. Color on the map

Example of this climate zone on the Big Island: Kua Bay, which is our favorite white sand beach on the island.

Temperate climate

The average temperature of the coldest month is between 64° F (18° C) and 27° F (-3° C), and average temperature of warmest month > 50° F (10° C). The main subdivisions include:

  • Winter dry. At least 10 times as much precipitation in the wettest month of summer as in driest month of winter (not in Hawaii).
  • Summer dry. At least three times as much rain in the wettest month of winter as in driest month of summer. The driest month should have less than 30mm precipitation. On our map it is divided in a warm and cool climate. Color on the map for the cool climate. Color on the map for the warm climate
  • Continuously wet. At least 30 mm precipitation in the driest month. The difference between the wettest and driest month is less than for the above two climates. Color on the map

Example of this climate zone on the Big Island: Volcano Village, which hosts temperate rainforests that make you feel like you are in Jurassic park!

Continental (cold) climate (not in Hawaii)

Continental climates have warm to cool summers and cold winters. The average temperature of the warmest month is greater than 50° F (10° C), while the coldest month is less than 27° F (-3° C). The main subdivisions are the same as those for the temperate climate:

  • Winter dry. At least 10 times as much precipitation in the wettest month of summer as in driest month of winter (not in Hawaii).
  • Summer dry. At least three times as much rain in the wettest month of winter as in driest month of summer. The driest month should have less than 30mm precipitation (not in Hawaii).
  • Continuously wet. At least 30 mm precipitation in the driest month. The difference between the wettest and driest month is less than for the above two climates (not in Hawaii).

We don’t like cold winters that much and are not sorry to say that the Big Island does not host any continental climate zone 😀

Polar climate

Polar climates are characterized by average temperatures below 50° F (10° C) during every month of the year. This climate can be split into two sub-climates:

  • Polar tundra. Permanently frozen soil to depths of hundreds of meters with an average temperature between 32° F (0° C) and 50° F (10° C) during the warmest month. Color on the map
  • Polar ice caps. Surface permanently covered by snow and ice. Average monthly temperature is below 32° F (0° C) during the whole year (not in Hawaii).

Surprise! We do have a polar tundra climate on the Big Island on the summits of both Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa.

Here is another fun piece of trivia: during the last 300.000 years there have been at least 4 glacial periods on the island during which the summits were covered with glaciers (source). The last of these periods ended only 9000 years ago.

Weather on the Big Island

So what do all these climates mean for your visit to the Big Island? Nothing but good news: you will find good warm weather year round. It might be a bit rainy if you are spending time on the east coast or get cool at night if you are staying at higher elevations, but that’s it.

Read more about the local weather in our guide: “weather on the Big Island, explained!”

disclaimer and context

The conclusion of this article that there are 8 out of the total 13 climate zones on the Big Island is based on the most common use of Köppen climate classification system. This is the most widely used and understood classification, but by far not the only one. The Köppen system itself has also changed over time (Wilcock et al. 1968 ).

The Köppen system is a 3-tier classification system with 5 main climates in the first tier (which are listed above, sometimes a 6th: “highland” is also used). These 5 main climates can be split up into 13 climate zones, and this is the amount of climate zones that we use when we say that the Big Island has 8 / 13 climate zones of the world. Finally, these 13 climate zones can be subdivided into 28 (or 30) “sub” climate zones. We have not used the 3rd tier in this article.

Climate zones

Climate zones

Climate zones are areas with distinct climates, which occur in east-west direction around the Earth, and can be classified using different climatic parametres. Generally, climate zones are belt-shaped and circular around the Poles (see picture on the right). In some areas, climate zones can be interrupted by mountains or oceans.

The solar radiation reaches the ground on different parts of the Earth with different angles. On the equator, the sunlight reaches the ground almost perpendicularly, whilst at the poles the angle of the Sun is lower or even under the horizon during the polar night.

Daylength
Author: Thomas Steiner

Throughout the seasons, the position of the Sun to the Earth and thus the angle of incidence of the sunlight also change. The angle of the Sun at noon varies from perpendicular (90°) within the tropics up to horizontal (0° = Sun does not or only partially appear on the horizon) within the polar circle. Thus, the sunlight warms up the Earth around the equator much more strongly than at the poles. Due to temperature differences caused by the differences in radiation, recurring climatic conditions develop, such as winter and summer. These conditions are characterised by a certain amount of precipitation in summer or a certain average air temperature.
Different climatic conditions, which arise regularly in certain areas, are summarized and described in the classification below.

Classification

There are 4 major climate zones:

  • Tropical zone from 0°–23.5°(between the tropics)
    • In the regions between the equator and the tropics (equatorial region), the solar radiation reaches the ground nearly vertically at noontime during almost the entire year. Thereby, it is very warm in these regions. Through high temperatures, more water evaporates and the air is often moist. The resulting frequent and dense cloud cover reduces the effect of solar radiation on ground temperature.
  • Subtropics from 23.5°–40°
    • The subtropics receive the highest radiation in summer, since the Sun’s angle at noon is almost vertical to the Earth, whilst the cloud cover is relatively thin. These regions receive less moisture (see trade winds), what increases the effect of radiation. Therefore, most of the deserts in the world are situated in this zone. In winter, the radiation in these regions decreases significantly, and it can temporarily be very cool and moist.
  • Temperate zone from 40°–60°
    • In the temperate zone, the solar radiation arrives with a smaller angle, and the average temperatures here are much cooler than in the subtropics. The seasons and daylength differ significantly in the course of a year. The climate is characterised by less frequent extremes, a more regular distribution of the precipitation over the year and a longer vegetation period – therefore the name “temperate”.
  • Cold zone from 60°–90°
    • The polar areas between 60° latitude and the poles receive less heat through solar radiation, since the Sun has a very flat angle toward the ground. Because of the changes of the Earth axis angle to the Sun, the daylength varies most in this zone. In the summer, polar days occur. Vegetation is only possible during a few months per year and even then is often sparse. The conditions for life in these regions are very hard.

The characteristics of the climate zones change with great altitude differences within a small area, like in mountain areas, since temperatures decrease rapidly with altitude, changing the climate compared to valleys.

Climatic Zones

The world has several climatic zones. These are summarised on the map below.

(Image courtesy of the UK Meteorological Office)
The classification is based on maximum and minimum temperatures and the temperature range as well as the total and seasonal distribution of precipitation.

Simple summary of climatic zones:

Polar – very cold and dry all year
Temperate – cold winters and mmild summers
Arid – dry, hot all year
Tropical – hot and wet all year
Mediterranean – mild winters, dry hot summers
Mountains (tundra) very cold all year

What factors affect climate?

There are 5 factors which affect climate. These are summarised below:

Latitude

Temperature range increases with distance from the equator. Also, temperatures decrease as you move away from the equator. This is because the suns rays are dispersed over a larger area of land as you move away from the equator. This is due to the curved surface of the earth. In addition polar regions are colder because the suns rays have further to travel compared to place on the equator.

Altitude

Temperatures decrease with height. The air is less dense and cannot hold heat as easily.

Winds

If winds are warm – they have been blown from a hot area – they will raise temperatures. If winds have been blown from cold areas they will lower temperatures.

Distance from the sea (continentality)

Land heats and cools faster than the sea. Therefore coastal areas have a lower temperature range than those areas inland. On the coast winters are mild and summers are cool. In inland areas temperatures are high in the summer and cold in the winter.

Aspect

Slopes facing the sun are warmer than those that are not. Thus south facing slopes in the northern hemisphere are usually warm. However, slopes facing north in the southern hemisphere are warmest.

Climate Graphs

Climate can be displayed on a graph. A climate graph contains two pieces of information. The amount of rainfall and the temperature of an area. The temperature is shown as a line and the rainfall is displayed as bars. The figures are usually calculated as an average over a number of years. This reduces the impact of any anomalies in the weather affecting the statistics.

Climate Regions of the United States

Knowing the best time to visit the United States is crucial: You don’t want to get stuck hiking in the sweltering West Texas desert in the height of summer or get trapped in a snowstorm during a wintry trip to Vermont. For travelers planning to traipse around the United States, it can certainly help to become familiar with the country’s major climate regions beforehand, as well as the average temperature of each if you want to enjoy your trip to the fullest.

Climates of the United States

The U.S. is typically grouped into five different regions: the Northeast, the Southwest, the West, the Southeast and the Midwest. USA climate varies dramatically by region. The Northeast is characterized by a fairly diverse climate, with bitterly cold winters (that often bring extreme weather in the form of ice storms and snowstorms) and semi-humid summers, especially to the south. Average temperatures during winter often dip well below 0 degrees Fahrenheit. Along the West Coast, particularly the farther north you travel, you can expect cool, wet winters and dry, cool summers (and often very chilly evenings, with average temps dipping into the 50s and 60s). Meanwhile, the climate in the Southeast could be best described as humid and sub-tropical, with warmish winters and (very, very) hot summers; it’s not uncommon for summer average temperatures to be over 100 degrees. And, the Midwest is similar in that summers are humid, although winters are usually much colder than in the Southeast.

Seasonal Travel by Region

Depending on the season and the region you’re traveling to, your activities will likely differ greatly. In general, the Northeast is renowned for its showstopping fall foliage, so nature fans may want to plan their trip around seeing this explosion of color in person. Peak foliage typically occurs during the first three weeks of October, but this also depends on where you’re going. The Southwest is definitely best seen before the heat and summer crowds descend on Death Valley and the Grand Canyon, so a springtime trip here (or wintertime, if you’re okay with braving the cold) is perfect. Early- to mid-September is a great time to visit the West, since temperatures are mild and days are typically clear; plus prices have usually dropped after skyrocketing during the summer. Alternatively, summertime in the West is usually very mild compared to other parts of the country. Visiting the Southeast is best done between October and early April, before the heat becomes oppressive; the same goes for parts of the Midwest, as well. If you do decide to visit the Southeast during summertime, just make sure you’re headed to the beach: Myrtle Beach, the Florida Keys and Gulf Shores are all lovely during this time of year.

Disclosure

Leaf Group is a USA TODAY content partner providing general travel information. Its content is produced independently of USA TODAY.

About the Author

Justine Harrington is a freelance travel journalist (and lifelong wanderer) based in Austin, Texas. Her essays, profiles, and destination guides have appeared in Fodor’s, Forbes Travel Guide, Backpacker, Scandinavian Traveler, Frommer’s, The Austin-American Statesman, Austin Monthly, Misadventures Magazine, and many others. She has bachelor’s degrees in French and anthropology, and has held nearly every travel-related job imaginable, from study abroad program director in France to ESL educator in Ecuador. To find out more, visit www.justineharrington.com.

Photo Credits

  • © Path2USA
  • Attribution: Steve Cadman; License: Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license
  • Attribution: Mark Lagola (original) and Ben Lunsford (this version); License: Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license
  • Attribution: Jessie Eastland; License: Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

Climatic Zones of the World

In order to classify Climatic Zones, climate can be considered at a variety of spatial and time scales.

Approx. Characteristic Dimensions

Horizontal Scale (km) Vertical Scale (km) Time Scale
Global 2 * 103 3 – 10 1 – 6 months
Regional 5 * 102 to 103 1 – 10 1 – 6 months
Local 1 to 10 102 to 10-1 1 – 24 hours
Microclimate 10-1 102 24 hours

At the geographic world map level, the Zonal classification is based on maximum and minimum temperatures and the temperature range as well as the total and seasonal distribution of precipitation. A simple summary of climatic zones is as follows:

Summary of climate zones

Climate zone Characteristics
Polar very cold and dry all year
Temperate cold winters and mild summers
Arid dry, hot all year
Tropical hot and wet all year
Mediterranean mild winters, dry hot summers
Mountains (Tundra) very cold all year

Koppen Climate Classification Map

Many attempts have been made to classify the many disparate climates on Earth into a comprehensive and comprehensible system. One of the earliest began with Aristotle and his discussion of Temperate, Torrid, and Frigid Zones. The system that seems to be in almost universal use now is the Köppen system, developed by German climatologist and amateur botanist Wladimir Koppen in 1928.

The modified Koppen system uses letters to denote the six major climate regions and their 24 sub-classifications. These regions are based on average monthly temperature and precipitation values. Whilst it does not take full account of factors such as cloudiness, solar radiation, wind or even extremes in temperature, it still remains a useful system.

The Koppen World Climate Classification Map shows that not only is climate geographically diverse at the broad scale, defined by the latitude within which a region lies, there is considerable diversity of climate within these broad scale regions.

In Europe, the Climates along the Mediterranean and towards the East are much warmer and brighter than those towards the North and West.

The Indian subcontinent also shows considerable diversity from the West to East from the North to South ranging from desert to equatorial. (See Climate Zones Map India). Even a small island of Srilanka has three distinct climatic zones.

Within the same climatic zone, some locations may have contrasting or variable climatic conditions. These may be caused by the following factors:

Latitude

Temperature range increases with distance from the equator. Also, temperatures decrease as you move away from the equator. This is because the suns rays are dispersed over a larger area of land as you move away from the equator. This is due to the curved surface of the earth. In addition Polar Regions are colder because the suns rays have further to travel compared to place on the equator. Altitude Temperatures decrease with height. The air is less dense and cannot hold heat as easily.

Winds

If winds are warm – they have been blown from a hot area – they will raise temperatures. If winds have been blown from cold areas they will lower temperatures.

Distance from the sea

Land heats and cools faster than the sea. Therefore coastal areas have a lower temperature range than those areas inland. On the coast winters are mild and summers are cool. In inland areas temperatures are high in the summer and cold in the winter.

Aspect

Slopes facing the sun are warmer than those that are not. Thus south facing slopes in the northern hemisphere are usually warm whereas slopes facing north in the southern hemisphere are warmest.

Hawaii is a place of extreme climates. But that’s not what a mid-western couple planning their once-in-a-lifetime, mid-winter, Hawaiian dream vacation wants to hear. Nor is it a fact that the marketers of Hawaii Visitors and Conventions Bureau spread through glossy literature. But a fact it is. Hawaii Island contains perhaps the world’s greatest concentration of climate types in its 4038 square miles. From dry, coastal, desert strand to some of the wettest spots on earth, to hot humid tropical lushness to stark, barren, snow-capped mountains, our big island offers an astonishing array of climates. You have probably heard a similar oft-quoted line, “Hawaii has 11 of the world’s 13 climate zones.” How many world climate zones are there, and which ones does Hawaii have?

Tropical Rainforest Photo by Carl Waldbauer

Snow Atop Mauna Kea Photo by Andrew Nisbet

Long ago the Greeks came up with a climate system that had three types: torrid, temperate, and frigid. In other words: hot, cool and cold. Hawaii easily has all three of these, but nobody uses that simple system anymore. Today, most climatologists, biologists, geographers and other professionals concerned with climate studies use the Koppen Climate Classification system. This system lists five major climate zones in the world. These zones are defined by temperature and precipitation measurements. Koppen’s five major climate zones are: 1.Arid and Semi-Arid, 2. Tropical Rainy, 3. Warm Temperate Rainy, 4. Cool Snow Forest, and 5. Polar. Hawaii has all of these zones except the Cool Snow Forest climate. But it’s more complicated than this. Within each major zone are sub-categories. Depending on the source, I have seen splits of the main categories that number 12, 13, and 14 different global sub-categories. Studies that define Hawaii’s climates recognize 10 of the Koppen sub-zones in the islands. All of these are found on Hawaii Island. To explore these ten climates, let’s start from the mountaintops with their Polar climate and work our way down in elevation to the coast where both Arid and Rainy Tropical are found.

Hawaii has the two tallest mountains on earth. When measured from their base off the ocean floor, both Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa rise over 31,000 feet high. The summits have a Polar Tundra climate. Here soil is permanently frozen. It is cold up there and the area receives an average of 15 inches or less of rain annually. Directly below the summit Polar Tundra zone are narrow bands of a Temperate climate called the Summer-Dry Cool zone. This zone covers the upper montane and sub-alpine areas circling around the peaks down to about 8500’ elevation. The upper summit area of Hualalai is also in this zone. Warmer than the Polar yet still cool enough to leave frost on the ground at times, this zone gets around 15 to 20 inches of rain a year. Still dropping down in elevation, we pick up another Temperate zone, the Summer Dry-Warm climate. This zone dominates the volcanic saddles between Kohala and Mauna Kea, or the Waimea Plains, and the Pohakuloa saddle area between Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea. As its name implies it is characterized by summer dryness and though warmer than the cool zone it has about the same annual precipitation. The next climate down makes up the largest climate zone on the island-the Continuously Wet Warm Temperate climate. It stretches from the mid-elevations of windward Kohala, along the Hamakua, Hilo, and Puna rainforests, wrapping around the island through Kau, and North and South Kona . In these mauka lands some of the largest remnants of native Hawaiian rainforest still exists between 2500 to 6500 feet elevation. The rainfall in this zone varies between 60 to 150 inches a year. Much of the precipitation falls as fog-drip creating a cloud-mist type rainforest.

Cloud/Winward Kohala Photo by Tina Nisbet

Below this Temperate zone lies the Wet Tropical climate. Along the entire windward coast from sea level up to 2000 to 3000 feet in elevation lies the Continuously Wet sub-zone. Here temperatures stay warm to hot and rainfall exceeds 300 inches a year in some areas. This is the climate where the majority of the island’s residents live. The south and southeastern Kau coastal area, including Ka Lae, encompasses the Wet Tropical Summer Dry zone. Another tropical zone found is a small patch of Tropical Monsoon. On the coast near Paauilo in Hamakua is an area that receives a great majority of its heavy rainfall in the hottest months of the year. The fourth tropical sub-zone, the Tropical Wet and Dry, lies along mauka Kona. It is characterized by wet summers and dry winters. Kona is the only place in the whole state which receives its high rainfall in the kau (summer) and not hooilo (winter). Finally, we arrive at the Arid to Semi-Arid Climate. From Upolu point to Keahole at the coast, moving inland above Kawaihae to Puako, through the barren lava fields of Mauna Loa and Hualalai exists a Hot Semi-Desert. Along the North Kona, South Kohala coast, from Kiholo to Kawaihae, right along the coastal strand exists a Hot Desert climate. With less than 10 inches of rain a year and hot, hot days, this zone benefits well from the calm, clear, and invigorating ocean waters. If not for the cooling ocean breezes that come ashore, these lands of resorts and beach houses would be a miserable place to be.

On one island in the tropics we have 10 different climate zones. Whether it’s 10 of 12 or 10 of 13 or 10 of 14, it is still impressive and probably unequalled anywhere else on earth for an area of equal size. From Arid to Wet Tropical to Cool Temperate to Polar Tundra, our island is a land of all seasons. So if you ever tire of the same old torrid coastal weather at the coast, pick a zone, take a drive, and experience a climatic change.

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