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Just Knowing A City's Latitude Is Not Always a Good Predictor of Climate

Updated: May 4, 2022

Four key geographical characteristics influence climate. They include Latitude, Elevation, Topography, and Bodies of Water. My focus in this article will be on latitude, bodies of water, and topography. As you may realize, latitude is an important component influencing climate, but indeed, other factors contribute to climate, including elevation, bodies of water, and topography.

According to Wikipedia, the Köppen climate classification divides climates into five main climate groups: A (tropical), B (dry), C (temperate), D (continental), and E (polar). For this argument, my focus will be on climate groups (C) temperate and (D) continental.

Bergen Harbor. Check Out The Gray Sky.

The first city to consider is Norway, Bergen. I choose this city for two reasons, one, I visited there about 40 years ago (August weather) and two, Bergen’s location is more critical to their climate than its latitude. Bergen's latitude is 60 degrees -- which means they are 66% of the way to the North Pole. Some might think that a location so far away from the equator would have more extreme weather but that’s not the case. Bergen, other parts of Norway, the UK, and Iceland are all influenced by the Gulf Stream, so their climate is considered temperate oceanic climate (Cfb) which represents plenty of rain in all seasons with some winter snow that quickly melts in the city. It’s been reported that in some winters, residents of Bergen don't see the sun between November and March. This might be hearsay, maybe but there’s probably more than a kernel of truth to that statement. If you stay at that latitude and work your way eastward into the mountains of Norway and away from moderate air, colder weather and snow are much more commonplace. In this instance, the classification would most likely change to humid continental. It's interesting that two cities in Norway with similar latitudes and only being a hundred or so miles apart can experience two different types of climate.

Great Plains.

We now pivot to a Minot, North Dakota, a completely different climate classification at 46.23’ N. latitude, half the way to the North Pole and located in the middle of North America. Its land-locked location and lack of significant topography have a lot more to do with its climate than just its latitude. Minot’s latitude is roughly 17% less than Bergen’s but there are other factors that come into play. There aren’t any large bodies of water near Minot to have much effect. According to Köppen, Minot is considered a humid continental climate (Dfb), with warm summers and winters averaging (32F to 27F). This classification also states their warm season lasts 3.8 months, and the cold season is roughly that same length. It’s frequently said by locals on the streets in ND and Northern Minnesota that winter can last 4-5 months and shortly thereafter, mosquitoes become commonplace. In the case of Minot’s climate, topography and elevation (1611 feet above sea level) do not play much of a role in its climate. Neither does its latitude necessarily; it’s strictly part of the Great Plains where location plays a pivotal role, especially in the winter when cold fronts make their way from the north to the south. The Polar Vortex that struck much of the country in February saw Minot and International Falls, MN experience 9 straight days where the temperature stayed below 0 degrees Fahrenheit. A perfect example of extreme weather in this humid continental climate.

Another moderate climate that lacks temperature extremes is Seattle, Washington, joining Bergen in the same Köppen Climate Classification (temperate oceanic climate (Cfb). Seattle’s latitude is 47.60’ N, which is slightly more than Minot but because of the ocean influence, weather and temperatures are not excessive. To qualify, all months in The Emerald City have to have average temps below 71.6 degrees. Most precipitation comes in the way of fog and rain, not showing any favoritism towards any one season. Some have described this climate as a death by a thousand cuts, meaning gray skies are a norm and in the winter, rain is quite common. Seattle roughly receives 6 inches of snow per season and typically it’s gone within a day or two, similar to Bergen’s experience with snow. A general rule is that cities within the range of 30 and 60 degrees of latitude and near a large ocean or sea, will typically have more moderating temperatures.

Emerald City's Skyline.

Chicago joins Minot as another example of a humid continental climate (Dfa). Even though it’s much farther south from Minot (41.88’ N to 46.23’N), both of these cities reside in the same humid continental climate, Chicago has hotter summers so they are categorized as Dfa instead of Minot’s Dfb. Even though both cities are considered humid, I suspect Chicago receives more precipitation with the Gulf of Mexico influence -- Minot is farther west so their influence is less noteworthy. Chicago also has Lake Michigan’s influence but has a more moderating effect on the four seasons. In many Midwestern cities, the weather may change from day to day (especially during a change in season) so a weathervane in someone's backyard will look like it can't make up its mind. Considering the Polar Vortex that hit the US in February '21 also brought snow to Chicago for 12 of the last 13 days of that month. Even with Lake Michigan nearby, the fact that it's continental in this instance often helps to bring significant temperature extremes, extremes that are much less common in temperate oceanic climates (Cfb)

With less temperate influences, the continental classification provides four distinct seasons, and daily and annual weather extremes. Generally, temperate coastal areas have many fewer temperature and precipitation extremes.

Lebedinka, Voronezh Oblast is a smaller town in Russia with a latitude of 49.65’ N. Its climate classification is Dfa, similar to Chicago’s climate. The area is a few hundred miles north of the Black Sea and directly east of Ukraine. So its climate is cold like Minot and Chicago, but their summers are hot, so it’s classified with Chicago (Dfa). Viewing from a map, Lebedinka is surrounded by land, where temperate ocean currents are not frequently found.

Overall, latitude can also be described as how far a location is away from the equator. By and large, climates cool the more you move away from the equator. However, to get a true indication of a city’s climate, you need to first consult a map with listed latitudes. Then determine that location's topography and also determine if it's near a large body of water. For example, if it is just east of a mountain range, expect more snow where it might be considered continental. If it’s influenced by the sea, even if it is far away from the equator, like Bergen, can it be temperate? If it’s in the middle of a very large landmass, such as North Dakota or parts of Russia without significant topography or large bodies of water, the weather is typically less moderate and more extreme. Again, latitude is critically important when it comes to understanding a particular climate. However, it's only one piece of data that you need to consider when determining climate.

Dfa = Hot-summer humid continental climate; coldest month averaging below −0 °C (32 °F) (or −3 °C (27 °F)), at least one month's average temperature above 22 °C (71.6 °F), and at least four months averaging above 10 °C (50 °F).

Dfb = Warm-summer humid continental climate; coldest month averaging below −0 °C (32 °F) (or −3 °C (27 °F)), all months with average temperatures below 22 °C (71.6 °F), and at least four months averaging above 10 °C (50 °F). No significant precipitation difference between seasons (neither above mentioned set of conditions fulfilled).

Cfb = Temperate oceanic climate; coldest month averaging above 0 °C (32 °F) (or −3 °C (27 °F)), all months with average temperatures below 22 °C (71.6 °F), and at least four months averaging above 10 °C (50 °F). No significant precipitation difference between seasons (neither above mentioned set of conditions fulfilled).

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