1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/United States, The/Climate


The chief features of the climate of the United States may be best apprehended by relating them to the causes by which they are controlled. Two leading features, from which many others follow, are the intermediate value of the mean annual temperatures and the prevalence of westerly winds, with which drift the areas of high and low pressure—cyclonic and anticyclonic areas—controlling the short-lived, non-periodic weather changes. The first of these features is determined by the intermediate position of the United States between the equator and the north pole; the second by the equatorial-polar temperature contrast and the eastward rotation of the planet. Next, dependent on the inclination of the earth's axis, is the division of the planetary year into the terrestrial seasons, with winter and summer changes of temperature, wind-strength and precipitation; these seasonal changes are not of the restrained measure that is characteristic of the oceanic southern temperate zone, but of the exaggerated measure appropriate to the continental interruptions of the northern land-and-water zone, to which the term “temperate” is so generally inapplicable. The effects of the continent are already visible in the mean annual temperatures, in which the poleward temperature gradient is about twice as strong as it is on the neighbouring oceans; this being a natural effect of the immobility of the land surface, in contrast to the circulatory movement of the ocean currents, which thus lessen the temperature differences due to latitude: on the continent such differences are developed in full force. Closely associated with the effect of continental immobility are the effects dependent on the low specific heat and the opacity of the lands, in contrast with the high specific heat and partial transparency of the ocean waters. In virtue of these physical characteristics, the air over the land becomes much warmer in summer and much colder in winter than the air over the oceans in corresponding latitudes; hence the seasonal changes of temperature in the central United States are strong; the high temperatures appropriate to the torrid zone advance northward to middle latitudes in summer, and the low temperatures appropriate to the Arctic regions descend almost to middle latitudes in winter. As a result, the isotherms of July are strongly convex poleward as they cross the United States, the isotherm of 70° sweeping up to the northern boundary in the north-west, and the heat equator leaping to the overheated deserts of the south-west, where the July mean is over 90°. Conversely, the isotherms of January are convex southward, with a monthly mean below 32° in the northern third of the interior, and of zero on the mid-northern boundary. The seasonal bending of the isotherms is, however, unsymmetrical for several reasons. The continent being interrupted on its eastern side by the Gulf of Mexico and Hudson Bay, with the Great Lakes between these two large water bodies, the northward bending of the July isotherms is most pronounced in the western part of the United States. Indeed the contrast between the moderate temperatures of the Pacific coast and the overheated areas of the next interior deserts is so great that the isotherms trend almost parallel to the coast, and are even “overturned” somewhat in southern California, where the most rapid increase of temperatures in July is found not by moving southward over the ocean toward the equator, but north-eastward over the land to the deserts of Nevada and Arizona. So strong is the displacement of the area of highest interior temperatures westward from the middle of the continent that the Gulf of California almost rivals the Red Sea as an ocean-arm under a desert-hot atmosphere. In the same midsummer month all the eastern half of the United States is included between the isotherms of 66° and 82°; the contrast between Lake Superior and the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, 1200 m. to the south, is not so great as between the coast of southern California and the desert 150 m. inland to the north-east. In January the northern water areas of the continent are frozen and snow-covered; Hudson Bay becomes unduly cold, and the greatest southward bending of the isotherms is somewhat east of the continental axis, with an extension of its effects out upon the Atlantic; but the southward bending isotherms are somewhat looped back about the unfrozen waters of the lower Great Lakes. In the midwinter month, it is the eastern half of the country that has strong temperature contrasts; the temperature gradients are twice as strong between New Orleans and Minneapolis as on the Pacific coast, and the contrast between Jacksonville, Fla., and Eastport, Me., is about the same as between San Diego, Cal., and the Aleutian Islands.

The strong changes of temperature with the seasons are indicated also by the distribution of summer maxima and winter minima; summer temperatures above 112° are known in the south-western deserts, and temperatures of 100° are sometimes carried far northward on the Great Plains by the “hot winds” nearly to the Canadian boundary; while in winter, temperatures of -40° occur along the mid-northern boundary and freezing winds sometimes sweep down to the border of the Gulf of Mexico. The temperature anomalies are also instructive: they rival those of Asia in value, though not in area, being from 15° to 20° above the mean of their latitude in the northern interior in summer, and as much below in winter. The same is almost true of the mean annual range (mean of July to mean of January), the states of the northern prairies and plains having a mean annual range of 70° and an extreme range of 135°. In this connexion the effect of the prevailing winds is very marked. The equalizing effects of a conservative ocean are brought upon the Pacific coast, where the climate is truly temperate, the mean annual range being only 10° or 12°, thus resembling western Europe; while the exaggerating effects of the continental interior are carried eastward to the Atlantic coast, where the mean annual range is 40° to 50°.

The prevailing winds respond to the stronger poleward temperature gradients of winter by rising to a higher velocity and a more frequent and severer cyclonic storminess; and to the weaker gradients of summer by relaxing to a lower velocity with fewer and weaker cyclonic storms; but furthermore the northern zone occupied by the prevailing westerlies expands as the winds strengthen in winter, and shrinks as they weaken in summer; thus the stormy westerlies, which impinge upon the north-western coast and give it plentiful rainfall all through the ear, in winter reach southern California and sweep across part of the Gulf of Mexico and Florida; it is for this reason that southern California has a rainy winter season, and that the states bordering on the Gulf of Mexico are visited in winter by occasional intensified cold winds, inappropriate to their latitude. In summer the storm westerly winds withdraw from these lower latitudes, which are then to be more associated with the trade winds. In California the effect of the strong equatorward turn of the summer winds is to produce a dry season; but in the states along the Gulf of Mexico and especially in Florida the withdrawal of the stormy westerlies in favour of the steadier trade winds (here turned somewhat toward the continental interior, as explained below) results in an increase of precipitation. The general winds also are much affected by the changes of pressure due to the strong continental changes of temperature. The warmed air of summer produces an area of low pressure in the west-central United States, which interrupts the belt of high pressure that planetary conditions alone would form around the earth about latitude 30°; hence there is a tendency of the summer winds to blow inward from the northern Pacific over the Cordilleras toward the continental centre, and from the trades of the torrid Atlantic up the Mississippi Valley; conversely in winter time, the cold air over the lands produces a large area of high pressure from which the winds tend to flow outward; thus repelling the westerly winds of the northern Pacific and greatly intensifying the outflow southward to the Gulf of Mexico and eastward to the Atlantic. As a result of these seasonal alternations of temperature and pressure there is something of a monsoon tendency developed in the winds of the Mississippi Valley, southerly inflowing winds prevailing in summer and northerly outflowing winds in winter; but the general tendency to inflow and outflow is greatly modified by the relief of the lands, to which we next turn.

The climatic effects of relief are seen directly in the ascent of the higher mountain ranges to altitudes where low temperatures prevail, thus preserving snow patches through the summer on the high summits (over 12,000 ft.) in the south, and maintaining snowfields and moderate-sized glaciers on the ranges in the north. With this goes a general increase of precipitation with altitude, so that a good rainfall map would have its darker shades very generally along the mountain ranges. Thus the heaviest measured rainfall east of the Mississippi is on the southern Appalachians; while in the west, where observations are as yet few at high level stations, the occurrence of forests and pastures on the higher slopes of mountains which rise from desert plains clearly testifies to the same rule. The mountains also introduce controls over the local winds; diurnal warming in summer suffices to cause local ascending breezes which frequently become cloudy by the expansion of ascent, even to the point of forming local thunder showers which drift away as they grow and soon dissolve after leaving the parent mountain. Conversely, nocturnal cooling produces well-defined descending breezes which issue from the valley mouths, sometimes attaining an unpleasant strength toward midnight.

The mountains are of larger importance in obstructing and deflecting the course of the general winds. The Pacific ranges, standing transverse to the course of the prevailing westerlies near the Pacific Ocean, are of the greatest importance in this respect; it is largely by reason of the barrier that they form that the tempering effects of the Pacific winds are felt for so short a distance inland in winter, and that the heat centre is displaced in summer so far towards the western coast. The rainfall from the strormy westerly winds is largely deposited on the western slopes of the mountains near the Pacific coast, and arid or desert interior plains are thus found close to the great ocean. The descending winds on the eastern slopes of the ranges are frequently warm and dry, to the point of resembling the Fohn winds of the Alps; such winds are known in the Cordilleran region as Chinook winds. The ranges of the Rocky Mountains in their turn receive some rainfall from the passing winds, but it is only after the westerlies are reinforced by a moist indraft from the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic—the result of summer or of cyclonic inflow—that rainfall increases to as sufficient measure on the lower lands to support agriculture without irrigation. The region east of the Mississippi is singularly favoured in this way; for it receives a good amount of rainfall, well distributed through the year, and indeed is in this respect one of the largest regions in the temperate zones that are so well watered. The Great Plains are under correspondingly unfavourable conditions, for their scanty rainfall is of very variable amount. Along the transition belt between plains and prairies the climate is peculiarly trying as to rainfall; one series of five or ten years may have sufficient rainfall to enable the farmers to gather good crops; but the next series following may be so dry that the crops fail year after year.

The cyclonic inflows and anticyclonic outflows, so characteristic of the belt of westerly winds the world over, are very irregular in the Cordilleran region; but farther eastward they are typically developed by reason of the great extent of open country. Although of reduced strength in the summer, they still suffice to dominate weather changes; it is during the approach of a low pressure centre that hot southerly winds prevail; they sometimes reach so high a temperature as to wither and blight the grain crops; and it is almost exclusively in connexion with the cloudy areas near and south-east of these cyclonic centres that violent thunderstorms, with their occasional destructive whirling tornadoes, are formed. With the passing of the low pressure centre, the winds shift to west or north-west, the temperature falls, and all nature is relieved. In wintertime, the cyclonic and anticyclonic areas are of increased frequency and intensity; and it is partly for this reason that many meteorologists have been disposed to regard them as chiefly driven by the irregular flow of the westerly winds, rather than as due to convectional instability, which should have a maximum effect in summer. One of the best indications of actual winter weather, as apart from the arrival of winter by the calendar, is the development of cyclonic disturbances of such strength that the change from their warm, sirocco-like southerly inflow in front of their centre, to the “cold wave” of their rear produces non-periodic temperature changes strong enough to overcome the weakened diurnal temperature changes of the. cold season, a relation which practically never occurs in summer time. A curious feature of the cyclonic storms is that, whether they cross the interior of the country near the northern or southern boundary or along an intermediate path, they converge towards New England as they pass on toward the Atlantic; and hence that the north-eastern part of the United States is subjected to especially numerous and strong weather changes.

(W. M. D.)