The Big Difference Between Weather and Climate (And 10 Other Nature Words Everyone Gets Wrong)

Weather vs. climate. Lake vs. pond. Swamp vs. marsh. With these simple tricks, you'll always know the difference between these nature words.

Elevation and altitude: What's the difference?

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If you’re hiking up a mountain and brag on Facebook that you’re “at an altitude of 6,000 feet!”—first, put your device away and enjoy the outdoors. Second, altitude is used to describe a point above sea level in the air, which is why pilots say altitude. (Here are secrets pilots won't tell you). Elevation is a point above sea level on land.

Lake and pond: What's the difference?

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Many small “lakes” could just as easily be called a pond, and the famed Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts, is actually a lake. The main distinction: A pond is shallow enough that light penetrates all the way to the bottom. Although there is no set size for either, most geographers agree that when a body of fresh water is bigger than 12 acres, it’s a lake. Smaller than that, it’s a pond.

Twilight and dusk: What's the difference?

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Dusk happens once a day, after sunset. It’s the darkest stage of twilight, which occurs when the sun is below the horizon but still showers the landscape in indirect light. Twilight happens twice every day—before sunrise and then again after sunset (but vampires only sparkle during twilight.)

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Weather and climate: What's the difference?

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Weather—a combination of atmospheric events that determine temperature, precipitation, and humidity—can be tracked daily. Weather is specific from region to region. Climate, on the other hand, is a much more wide-ranging system that is tracked over long periods of time. In other words, climate is a long-term trend, and weather is the variation around this trend.

Island and continent: What's the difference?

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Continents are big, and islands are small, right? Well, yes, but there’s an even bigger difference. A continent is a landmass composed of low-density rock that “floats” on top of the Earth’s mantle—it is bordered by tectonic plates and has mountain ranges and a plethora of cultures. Oceanic islands are landmasses composed of heavier rock that have risen partially above sea level. That’s why Greenland is the world’s largest island, not Australia, which is technically a continent.

Canyon and gorge: What's the difference?

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Both are deep ravines with a stream or a river cutting through the bottom—but canyons have wider, sloping walls, whereas gorges are much narrower and steeper. But don’t go by the geographic names of these features. For example, the Columbia River Gorge in Oregon and Washington is actually a canyon.

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Stalactites and stalagmites: What's the difference?

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Formed by water and minerals, a stalactite hangs “tight” from a cave ceiling. It has a c for ceiling; a stalagmite has a g for “ground.”

Butte and mesa and plateau: What's the difference?

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A plateau is the largest of the three; it’s a flat-topped hill or mountain. A mesa is medium-sized. When it erodes away into a smaller formation, it becomes a butte.

Swamp and bog and marsh: What's the difference?

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All three are types of wetlands. But a bog is on high ground, so water drains away from it and is replenished by rainfall. Bogs are covered in peat moss, which makes it difficult for aquatic animals to breathe or survive there. Swamps are low, flat areas where slow-moving water from rivers collects; they’re usually muddy and are home to trees and fish. A marsh borders a lake, ocean, or other large body of water; it’s got grasses and reeds (but not trees or peat) and lots of underwater life and birds.

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Hail and sleet: What's the difference?

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Both are irregularly shaped ice chunks that fall from clouds, but hail most commonly occurs in the warmer months. Why is hail larger? Because it forms in large thunderheads—the winds push the lump of ice high into the atmosphere, sometimes several times, making it grow larger and larger until it’s heavy enough to fall. Sleet isn’t associated with these massive updrafts, so it doesn’t take as much ice forming around a water droplet before gravity kicks in and makes it ruin your morning commute.

Hurricane and cyclone and typhoon: What's the difference?

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All three describe the same kind of oceanic storm with sustained winds reaching higher than 74 mph—the difference is in their location. If it strikes North America from the Atlantic Ocean, it’s a hurricane (named for Hurikan, the Mayan god of evil). If it strikes China or Japan, it’s called a typhoon (from Greek tuphõn, “whirlwind”); to Filipinos and other Southeast Asian, they are called baguios. And in the Indian Ocean, it’s called a cyclone—coined in 1848 by English scientist Captain H. Piddington, who derived the name from the Greek kyklon, “to move in a circle.” Today, any storm that has a circular motion—but isn’t strong enough to be a hurricane or typhoon—is referred to as a cyclone.

City and town and village: What's the difference?

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A city is an incorporated human settlement, which means it’s governed by a single entity (a mayor and city council) that is enclosed in a larger entity (county, state, country). A town is smaller than a city, but like a city it can also have a mayor. But unlike a city, a town’s municipal services (utilities, transportation) are handled by the county. A village has no central governing body and can be part of a town or city.

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