To understand how mountains affect weather and climate we must first define these two elements. In simplest terms, weather relates to the current conditions of the atmosphere (temperature, humidity, precipitation, cloudiness, brightness, visibility, wind, and atmospheric pressure) in a given location. Climate, on the other hand, is the average result of weather occurrences over a region for an extended period of time.
The climate of a region is determined by two principal components, temperature and precipitation and it cannot be judged by only one or the other as this could easily lead to an inaccurate depiction of an area’s climate. For instance, let’s compare San Francisco and St. Louis. They both have an average yearly temperature of about 13 degrees Celsius. Upon first glance it may seem as though they have the same climate. Missouri, however, has cold winters and hot summers while San Francisco has a mild climate all year long. Two very different climates!
So what part do mountains play in weather and climate patterns locally and regionally? Simply put, mountains create their own microclimates, and they quite often create several different microclimates depending upon the altitude and other geographical conditions. Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania provides a good example with several different microclimates ranging from scorching hot at the base and extremely cold at the summit.
The most recognizable effect of microclimates and localized weather impacting a regional climate is a result of the capture and release of precipitation. Mountains cause two basic effects on precipitation. First is the orographic effect, which occurs on the windward side of the mountain. Winds carry moist air over the land. When air reaches the mountain, it rises because the mass of the mountain is in the way. As the air rises, it cools and the water that was previously in vapor form condenses and grows heavier since cool air can carry less moisture than warm air. The result is usually precipitation, which in turn encourages growth of vegetation. The overall impact on the region is that it is heavily covered in a variety of vegetation types depending on the altitude.
The second effect is the rain shadow effect. This takes place on the leeward side of a mountain. Since much of the airborne moisture falls as rain (or snow) on the windward side of mountains as a result of the orographic effect, this often means that the land on the other side of the mountain (the leeward side) gets far less rain and often produces an extremely arid climate that causes dry regions like deserts. The size and type of dry region on the leeward side is directly effected by the size of the mountain or mountain range as the higher the mountains, the greater the shadow effect.
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