What Are the Major Climate Zones?

Climate zones dictate the weather and plant life native to a region.

International Space Station (ISS) Orbit in Space over Amazon River - SpaceX & NASA Research - 3D Rendering
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Earth's climate zones—the horizontal belts of different climates that encircle the planet—consist of tropical, dry, temperate, continental, and polar zones.  

These major climate zones exist thanks to Earth’s diverse landscapes. Each country is located at a specific latitude and elevation, next to either a particular landmass, body of water, or both. As a result, they are impacted differently by certain ocean currents or winds. Likewise, a location’s temperatures and precipitation patterns are influenced in a unique way. And it’s this unique mix of influences that yields different climate types.

As abstract as climate zones may seem, they remain a key tool for understanding earth’s many biomes, tracking the extent of climate change, determining plant hardiness, and more.

The Discovery of Earth’s Climate Zones

The concept of climate zones dates back to ancient Greece. In the 6th century B.C., a pupil of Pythagoras was the first to suggest the idea.

A few centuries later, the famous Greek scholar Aristotle hypothesized that the earth’s five circles of latitude (the Arctic Circle, Tropic of Capricorn, Tropic of Cancer, Equator, and Antarctic Circle) divided the Northern and Southern hemispheres into a torrid, temperate, and frigid zone. However, it was Russian-German scientist Wladimir Köppen who, in the early 1900s, created the climate classification scheme we use today.

Because little climate data existed at that time, Köppen, who also studied botany, began observing the relationship between plants and climate. If a species of plant needed special temperatures and rainfall to grow, he thought, then a location’s climate could be inferred simply by observing the plant life native to that area.

The Main Climate Zones

World map of climate zones for 1960 to 2016

Maulucioni / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Using his botanical hypothesis, Köppen determined that five major climates exist worldwide: tropical, dry, temperate, continental, and polar.

Tropical (A)

Tropical climate zones lie near the Equator and have continually high temperatures and high precipitation. All months have average temperatures above 64 degrees F (18 degrees C), and 59 plus inches (1,499 mm) of annual rainfall is normal.

Dry (B)

Dry or arid climate zones experience high temperatures year-round, but little annual precipitation. 

Temperate (C)

Temperate climates exist in Earth’s middle latitudes and are influenced by both the land and water that surrounds them. In these zones, wider temperature ranges are experienced throughout the year, and seasonal variations are more distinct.

Continental (D)

Continental climates also exist in the mid-latitudes, but as the name implies, they’re generally found at the interiors of large landmasses. These zones are characterized by temperatures that swing from cold in winter to warm in summer, and moderate precipitation that occurs mostly in the warmer months or as snowstorms in the colder months.

Polar (E)

Polar climate zones are too harsh to support vegetation. Both winters and summers are very cold, and the warmest month has an average temperature below 50 degrees F (10 degrees C).

In later years, scientists added a sixth major climate zone—the highland climate. It includes the variable climates found in the world’s high mountain regions and plateaus.

What's With All the Letters?

As seen on Köppen-Geiger climate maps, each climate zone is abbreviated by a string of two or three letters. The first letter (always capitalized) describes the main climate group. The second letter indicates precipitation patterns (wet or dry). And if there’s a third letter present, it describes the climate’s temperatures (hot or cold).

Regional Climate Zones

Köppen’s five climate groups do a good job of telling us where the world’s hottest, coldest, and in-between climates are, but they don’t capture how local geographical features, such as mountains or lakes, influence seasonal precipitation and temperatures. Realizing this, Köppen split his main categories into subcategories called regional climates.

Regional Climates at a Glance
Rainforest Wet, winterless climate zones; averages over 2.4 inches (60 mm) of rainfall for all months of the year.
Monsoon Receives bulk of annual precipitation from months-long monsoon winds; the remainder of the year is dry, and all months are winterless.
Savanna Features high year-round temperatures, lengthy dry season, short rainy season.
Desert  Loses moisture through evaporation faster than rainfall can replenish it.
Steppe  (Semi-arid) Similar to deserts (moisture is lost faster than it is replenished), but slightly more humid.
Humid subtropical  Features hot, humid summers, and cool winters; precipitation varies.
Humid continental  Features large seasonal temperature differences; precipitation is uniform throughout the year.
Oceanic  Features mild summers, cool winters, and uniform precipitation throughout the year; temperature extremes are rare.
Mediterranean  Features mild, wet winters, and dry summers; temperatures of 10 degrees C (50 degrees F) and above are present for one-third of the year.
Subarctic  Features long, very cold winters; short, cool summers; and little precipitation.
Tundra  Features at least one month above 32 degrees F (0 degrees C), but none above 50 degrees F (10 degrees C); annual precipitation is light.
Ice cap  Features permanent ice and snow; temperatures rarely climb above 32 degrees F (0 degrees C).

Some of the above climate subzones can be further classified by temperature. For example, deserts can be either "hot" or "cold" depending on whether their average annual temperature is above 64 degrees F (18 degrees C) or below it. When you consider the five major climate zones, plus this cornucopia of subzones, a total of more than 30 unique regional climate zones exist.

Do Earth's Climate Zones Shift?

As temperature and precipitation patterns across a region change, the region’s climate zone, which is based on those parameters, will also change. Between 1950 and 2010, human-caused climate change shifted nearly six percent of the global land area toward warmer and drier climate types, according to a 2015 study in Scientific Reports. 

View Article Sources
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  2. "Climate Zones." National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

  3. Chen, Hans W. "Koppen Climate Classification."

  4. Chan, Duo and Qigang Wu. "Significant Anthropogenic-Induced Changes of Climate Classes Since 1950." Scientific Reports, vol. 5, 2015, pp. 13487., doi:10.1038/srep13487