A brief history of the terms climate and climatology


  • Roger G. Barry

    Corresponding author
    1. National Snow and Ice Data Center, Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences, University of Colorado, Boulder, CO, USA
    • R. G. Barry, National Snow and Ice Data Center, Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences, University of Colorado, Boulder, CO 80309-0449, USA.
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The paper traces the origins of the terms climate and climatology in the English language. The term climate has a 600-year history, but only came into widespread scientific use about 150 years ago. Climatology began to find wide usage in the mid-late 19th century. Copyright © 2012 Royal Meteorological Society

1. Introduction

Given the wide scientific and societal significance of climate and its study, the origins of the terms climate and climatology are of interest. They are traced from their earliest usages in English. The early references are in general scientific works but later climatology evolves as a science in its own right.

The idea for the study arose from work tracing the origin of the word ‘cryosphere’ (Barry et al., 2011) and the long-standing interest of the author in the historical development of climatology.

2. Climate

Antecedents of the concept of climate can be found in Greece in fifth century BC. To Hippocratic writers, seasonal change, climatic conditions and location all influenced the occurrence of disease. Franco and Williams (2000) say that ‘the Hippcratic treatise “Airs, waters, places” associates season, prevailing winds, and the quality of the air and water with the physical condition of people’. The earliest notions of climate were linked with latitude and astronomy. The Greek historian and geographer Herodotus writing in the mid-fourth century BC, noted climatic contrasts between Greece, Scythia and Libya (de Sélincourt, 1954).

According to Eratosthenes a century later, latitudinal zones around the earth were considered to be associated with a particular type of climate—torrid, temperate and frigid. In late antiquity (from the third to early seventh century AD), it was believed that the habitable world encompassed seven climates (associated with the seven planets by astrological writers). The climatic zones were named after the places where they crossed the meridian of Alexandria in Egypt. Their central lines passed respectively through Meroe (200 km northeast of Khartoum), Aswan, Alexandria, Rhodes, the Hellespont (or Rome), the mouth of the Dnieper River and either ‘Thule’ or the Ural Mountains. A more comprehensive system divided the northern and southern hemispheres into 24 climates, each corresponding to an increase in day length of the longest day of 30 min (Oxford English Dictionary online, 2011).

This notion of climate zones was picked up by medieval geographers and was in use during the 13–18th centuries. In the 13th century, Roger Bacon, considered to be the first English scientist, wrote (in Latin) that Ptolemy of Alexander (second century AD) distinguished numerous ‘climata’ marking them by the increasing length of the longest day. These are defined by an increase of 15 min to latitude 61°, then 30 min to 64° and then by an hour to 66° latitude (Bridges, 1900, pp. 294–301).

The earliest use of the term climate in English was around AD 1400. The word originated in France from the Middle French word ‘climat’, which came into Middle English as climat or clymat (Oxford English Dictionary online, 2011).

Middle French dates from about 1340 to the early 1600s and Middle English from the late 11th to late 15th centuries. The roots of the word are the Greek klima meaning region or zone from the verb klinein to slope or lean, and the Latin clima meaning region or slope of the earth.

The earliest reference in English is from Sir John Mandeville (1919), originally translated from Anglo-Norman around 1350–1370. He refers to the people of India being in the first climate (of Saturn) while England and France are in the seventh climate (of the moon). The idea persisted for at least four centuries. In North America, the earliest geography text by Morse et al. (1789, p. 8) identified 30 climates between the equator and either pole. In England, Kirwan (1787) wrote more scientifically on the estimation of temperature at different latitudes (Golinski, 2007, p. 210).

A second meaning of climate is the conditions of a region or place on the earth. In a text on the astrolabe, Geoffrey Chaucer (AD 1391) referred to the longitudinal and latitudinal extent of a climate, meaning its length and breadth, according to Eisner (2002, p. 301). The more modern view of a region considered with regard to its prevailing weather conditions (temperature, humidity, precipitation, wind etc.) throughout the year first appears in the late 16th century. In Hakluyt (1600, p. 676), we find the statement that Newfoundland is in a temperate climate. There are records of similar statements throughout the 16–18th centuries.

The French philosopher Baron de Montesquieu writing in 1742 argued that the character of peoples and nations is determined by climate (Shackleton, 1955; Fleming, 1998, p. 16). The idea that climate affects the life of humans, animals and plants gradually developed in the 18th century and, in the mid-1840s, Alexander von Humboldt, the great German naturalist and geographer defined climate as ‘all the changes in the atmosphere that perceptibly affect our organs’ (von Humboldt, 1858, p. 317). An example of early medical climatology is contained in a book on the climate of Madeira by Bloxam (1854), although it lacks any direct observations (Jankovic, 2006). Climatic effects on agriculture were an early concern in the United States where the Weather Bureau published a number of reports on soils and climate in the later 19th century.

Although the term climate was still not rigorously defined, the concept of climate change appears in the mid-19th century. In 1854, an article in the US Magazine for Science, Arts and Manufactures (15 December, p. 234) noted that climate changes have been ascribed to the cutting down of dense forests, the exposure of the upturned soil to the summer sun, and the draining of marshes. However, a report in the Ohio Democrat for 25 April 1873 (1/6) states that there are no thermometric records sufficiently comprehensive to allow conclusions as to climate change in the West of the United States. Fleming (1998, pp. 50–53) points out that the prevailing view of 19th century climatologists such as Abbé (1889) was that climate was stable.

In an article entitled ‘Weather’ in the Cornhill Magazine (London) for July 1860 (volume 2: p. 566) climate is defined as ‘the general average of the weather for a country or district’—the traditional view of climate by meteorologists. This represents the beginning of the modern era when climatic statistics began to be compiled.

3. Climatology

Climatology is concerned with the study of climates and with the climatic conditions associated with a particular region or phenomenon (Oxford English Dictionary Online, 2011).

The earliest usage of the term climatology appears to be by W. Butte (Griffith, 1813). Writing in French he states ‘Climatography depends greatly on a previous knowledge of climatology, that is, a knowledge of the causes which affect the temperature of a country’. Forbes (1841), in a report to the British Association for the Advancement of Science laments the fact that ‘on the very important subject of climatology,… no material step whatever has been made since the publication of the last report’.

The first record of the use of the term climatologist is from 1852. In the journal The Chemist we find the statement ‘This meteorological effect, which is reproduced each year with a periodicity about which all climatologists agree …’ (Boutron-Charlard and Henry, 1852). In The Spectator (1886), it is reported that ‘Sir James Fayrer, the climatologist, pronounced … that he might now safely return to the field’.

4. Publications

From 1897–1910, the British Society of Balneology and Climatology published a quarterly journal with that title. Balneology is the study of the therapeutic use of thermal baths and its origins can be traced to the late 15th century in Italy (Martin, 2011, p. 89). The focus of the journal was on the influence of waters and climate on mankind. The first issue contained a papers on ‘Balneology and climatology, old and new’ by Sir E. Sieveking and a paper on the climate of Ilfracombe in Devon by C. W. E. Toller.

The first book to use the term climate in its title was written by Williams (1806) on the climate of Great Britain. It included a short general account of weather in Britain, figures on annual rainfall at a few locations and a discussion of winds related to pressure changes and precipitation. However, most of the text was concerned with evaporation and its relationship to agriculture and land use. Luke Howard published a more scientific work on the climate of London (1818–1819, 1833; Mills, 2008). An extensive climatology of the United States was published by Blodgett (1857), representing the first such text. The first textbook on climatology was published in Austria by Hann (1883) closely followed by Voieikov (1884) in Russia. A major synthesis of ‘The climates of the continents’ was prepared by Kendrew (1922) that appeared in a fifth edition in 1961. In Germany, similar works were published by Köppen (1923) and Köppen and Geiger (1930). More recently, the ‘World survey of climatology’ in 16 volumes was edited by Landsberg (1969–1995) that include information about all regions of the world. Subdivisions of climatology began with the first textbook on microclimate, published by Geiger (1927) in German and translated into English in 1950. The first text on physical climatology was published by Sellers (1965). The first textbook on synoptic climatology—the study of climate as described by airflow and circulation patterns—was written by Barry and Perry (1973) and subsequently Barry and Carleton (2001) published ‘Synoptic and dynamic climatology’.

Journals about climate have a recent history spanning only two to three decades. In 1977, the journal Climatic Change, edited by Stephen Schneider, was launched by Reidel; this was subsequently taken over by Kluwer and then by Springer. In 1981, Prof. S. Gregory in the UK launched the (International) Journal of Climatology. The American Meteorological Society began publishing the Journal of Climate and Applied Meteorology in 1983, by adding climate topics to the Journal of Applied Meteorology. Then, in 1988, the Journal of Climate was started for climatology papers. Springer launched Climate Dynamics in 1986 and the Inter-Research Science Center began publishing Climate Research in 1990.

Khrgian (1970) devoted two chapters of his history of meteorology to the evolution of climatology, mainly in Europe and Russia. Douguedroit (2004) has prepared an overview of the evolution of climatology emphasizing the second half of the 20th century. She notes that climatology evolved from the science of the states of the atmosphere, as postulated by Hann (1883), to the analysis of ‘weather types’, particularly in Britain and Europe in the 1950s, as documented by Barry and Perry (1973). However, she does not draw attention to the much earlier formulation of air mass climatology in the 1920–1930s by Bergeron (1928). These developments in turn led to the science of the climate system as a result of the recognition of teleconnections, the formulation of climate models and the advent of new global satellite observing systems. At the international level, this was reflected in the establishment of the World Climate Research Programme by the International Council for Science and the World Meteorological Organization in 1980.

5. Concluding remarks

While the term climate has been in use in English for some 600 years, it is only in the last 150 years that it has gained wide currency. The study of climate—climatology—evolved in the mid-late 19th century. However, it was not until there were long records of climate data available in the 1880s that climatology began to take shape as elaborated in the first textbooks in German and Russian. Over the last half-century climatology has evolved from the study of climatic means to the study of the global climate system encompassing the oceans, vegetation cover, soils and cryosphere.


I wish to thank Dr Phil Jones, Dr Deborah Coen and an anonymous reviewer for their helpful suggestions.