The there? But how, exactly, did Californians

The temperature in California is perfect! How did Californians get so lucky? Read about maritime and continental climates to find the answer, then test your understanding with a short quiz.

Craving California’s Climate

Ah, California. Home of beach weather in the summer and 60-degree days in the winter. Who wouldn’t want to live there? But how, exactly, did Californians get so lucky? Why is their weather so wonderful? The answer to that has to do with the beautiful Pacific Ocean right next door.The California coast has what is called a maritime climate. In other words, its climate is influenced by oceanic air patterns.

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Maritime climates tend to have cool summers, warm winters and a minimal change in temperature throughout the year. San Diego, famous for its year-round beautiful weather, has a high of 65 degrees Fahrenheit in January and a high of 75 degrees in July. That’s a change of only ten degrees from January to July.

Compare this to continental climates. Continental climates do not have the stabilizing influence of a neighboring large body of water. Thus, their summers are hotter, winters are more severe and temperatures change more drastically throughout the year. Omaha, Nebraska, for example, has a high of 33 degrees Fahrenheit in January and a high of 87 degrees in July, a 54 degree change.

Okay, but this still does not really tell us why maritime climates are more temperate than continental climates. To understand this, we need to discuss heat capacity.

Heat Capacity

An object’s heat capacity is the amount of heat required to raise its temperature by one degree Celsius. Water has twice the heat capacity as land. This means it takes a lot more sunlight to raise the temperature of water than it does to raise the temperature of land. And, conversely, it takes a lot longer for the temperature of water to go back down. So, land heats up and cools down quickly, allowing for quick and extreme changes in temperature.

If you live in an area that is near an ocean or a large lake, this difference in heat capacity works in your favor. The ocean tends to keep the surrounding air, and thus the surrounding environment, at a more stable temperature.

The Influence of Wind Currents

Okay, but New York is also by an ocean. The high in January is 39 degrees Fahrenheit and the high in July is 85 degrees.

That is a change of 46 degrees from January to July. That’s more mild than Omaha, but not nearly as nice as San Diego. Why is that?This is the result of prevailing wind patterns, or the primary direction of the wind in a certain area. If you look at the map, the prevailing winds across the United States are Westerlies.

Prevailing Wind Patterns
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Thus, the milder temperatures from the Pacific Ocean are being blown across California, while the more severe temperatures from the Midwest are being blown into New York.

This results in a less temperate climate on the East Coast than on the West Coast.

Lesson Summary

So, let’s summarize. Maritime climates, like those on the West Coast of the United States, are influenced by oceanic air patterns. They tend to have cool summers, warm winters and a minimal change in temperature throughout the year. Compare that to continental climates, which do not have the stabilizing influence of a nearby large body of water. These climates have hot summers, cold winters and drastic changes in temperature during the year.The difference in these two climates is the result of water having twice the heat capacity as land.

Heat capacity is the amount of heat required to raise the temperature of a substance one degree Celsius. It takes much longer for water to both warm up and cool down. Thus, the surrounding air stays at a more steady temperature.Prevailing winds, or the primary wind direction in an area, also have an effect on the climate. Even though the climate of New York is stabilized by the Atlantic Ocean, it is still not as mild as the climate in San Diego.

This is because the prevailing winds of the United States blow the extreme temperatures of the Midwest into the city.

Learning Outcomes

After you’ve completed this lesson, you’ll have the ability to:

  • Describe maritime climates and continental climates
  • Explain the role of heat capacity in creating the difference in these two climates
  • Recall the effect of prevailing winds on climate
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