Get more rain than your neighbors? Microclimates could be to blame.

Understanding your local weather is a necessity for any setting. Whether you live in hot, arid conditions such as the southwestern U.S., or in a four-season weather pattern like the northeastern U.S., you must learn to live with the weather or more specifically, your climate. Climate is prevailing general weather conditions over a long period of time, for a specific region. Basic climates of the U.S. and even the world are common knowledge, but did you know that there are climates within climates?

These miniature climates within large-scale climates are known as “micro-climates”. According to the Cornell University Department of Horticulture, a microclimate is defined as “The climate of a small area that is different from the area around it. It may be warmer or colder, wetter or drier, or more or less prone to frosts”. These peculiar climates may range from a few square feet to a couple of square miles.

Imagine an ideal garden, receiving the perfect amount of shade, water and sunlight. This type of environment stays relatively cool and moist whereas a nearby environment receiving mainly sunlight will have a much warmer, drier microclimate. On the other hand, doesn’t it always seem hotter in a big city?

Walking through downtown Rochester during the summer, the heat can be stifling. This is because urban environments are filled with objects that have a low specific heat capacity such as asphalt, bricks, and concrete. These objects absorb the sun’s radiation, warm rapidly, then give off that heat, creating much warmer temperatures. As a result, cities are often urban heat islands, featuring temperatures 2–5°F warmer than the surrounding areas.

Illustration of microclimates that exist on Hawaii. Photo courtesy Hilo Living.

Other factors such as wind direction and elevation contribute to the formation of microclimates. The Big Island of Hawaii has ten different microclimates in an area roughly the size of Connecticut. The prevailing easterly trade winds and precise placement of volcanoes, result in climates that can vary from hot desert to tropical rainforest in a matter of fifty miles.

Bodies of water can also cause a microclimate, especially in our region. Unlike land, water has a high specific heat capacity, enabling more solar radiation absorption.. Thus, temperatures will increase and decrease at a much slower rate near water, creating a more temperate environment. It’s for this reason that Vineyards are quite common in the Finger Lakes region. The neighboring lakes release their stored heat in the fall, allowing for temperatures to stay relatively mild, preventing an early frost. These microclimates are a growing economic boon to the central New York economy.

Geography and large-scale weather patterns dictate the general climate of the U.S., but did you ever realize climates can vary in your backyard?