What Is a Continental Climate?

Calgary, Alberta experiences a continental climate.
Calgary, Alberta experiences a continental climate.

Climate can be defined as the general long-term prevailing weather condition such as air pressure, temperature, wind, precipitation, and humidity that occur in a particular place. There are many factors that influence the climate of a place, the most significant of which is latitude. Places close to the equator are exposed to more sunlight and are much warmer compared to those places near the poles. Other factors affecting climate include altitude, terrain, and water bodies and their currents. Climates are classified according to the average and the typical range of different variables, especially precipitation and temperature. Koppen climate classification is the most commonly used climate classification scheme. According to Koppen classification, there are five primary types of climate labeled A to E, being tropical, dry, temperate, continental, and polar. The primary types are further divided into secondary types including humid continental, rainforest, tropical, monsoon, oceanic, desert, steppe, and Mediterranean climate. This article focus on the continental climate.

Overview of the Continental Climate

Continental climates are characterized by variable weather pattern and significant variation in temperature. Continentality is the measure of the degree to which a region’s climate typifies that of an interior of a large landmass. This type of climate occurs in the mid-latitudes where temperatures are not moderated by any water body such as sea or ocean and the prevailing wind blow overhead. Such regions experience colder winters and hot summers since there is no water body to keep the climate milder in winter and cooler in summer. This is because rocks and soil have a lower heat capacity compared to water and also lose heat much faster. Thus, the continental climate is relatively dry as air masses that originate from the oceans far away are lost before reaching the location. Continental climate occurs mainly in the Northern Hemisphere which has the required large landmass for the climate to develop.

General Characteristics of Continental Climate

Continental climate is characterized by a moderate amount of precipitation, mostly concentrated in the warmer months. The precipitation is derived from the frontal cyclone and conventional showers during the summer months when the maritime tropical air pushes northwards behind retreating polar front. Most areas show distinct summer precipitation maximum with only a few areas such as the mountains of the Pacific Northwest of the continent of North America and in northern Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia show winter precipitation maximum. Part of the annual precipitation is in the form a snowfall with the snow remaining on the ground for up to a month. The mean annual precipitation is 24-47 inches, mostly in form of snow. Summer can also feature thunderstorm and cooler temperatures. Winters are generally cold but are subject to occasional mild spell resulting from the periodic incursions of tropical air. The mean temperature during winter is typically below freezing point. Spring and autumn in this climate zone vary depending on elevation and latitude. In the southern part, spring begins as early as March while in the north as late as May.

Locations with Continental Climate

Regions of the world that experience continental climate includes much of North America, Central Russia, and Siberia. Canada, Siberia, and northern states of the United States in particular exhibit large differences in wintertime and summertime average temperature of up to 40 degrees Celsius.


The continental climate is experienced throughout most parts of Southern Canada from the Rocky Mountains to Atlantic Canada. The region is in the interior of Canada and very far from large water bodies such as lakes and Ocean. The major areas in Canada that experience a continental climate include Calgary, Edmonton, Quebec City, London, Toronto, Niagara Falls, Sydney, and Kingston. In these areas, precipitation is about 40 inches per year and is well distributed throughout the year. Winters are cold and characterized by dry and sunny days alternating with periods of snowfall. Summer is short, rainy, and cool with thunderstorms in the afternoon. Spring sets in a bit late.

United States

In the United States, the continental climate is experienced mainly in the northern states including Alaska and in farther south in states such as California, Oregon, and Arizona. Areas along the Appalachian Mountain are also included in this climate zone. Some of the major cities in the US experiencing the continental climate include Salt Lake City, Denver, Kansas City, Omaha, Milwaukee, Indianapolis, Chicago, Detroit, Columbus, New York City, Buffalo, Boston, and Cleveland. These areas experiencing humid continental climate have four distinct seasons, with cold and snowy winter and warm to hot summer. The mean daily high temperatures range from -12 °C to -1 °C in winter to 21 °C to 27 °C in summer. The conflict between the Gulf and the Canadian air often result in severe thunderstorm and tornados, especially in May and June. June is usually the wettest month of the year, especially in the northern plains and the North Central States.

South America

In South America, no major city falls into the classification of a continental climate largely because of the influence of the ocean. Most parts of the continent fall within the oceanic climate zone. However, some remote places experience this type of climate. The climate Mendoza in Argentina is arid with continental characteristics. The town receives most of the precipitation in summer months (November to March). Summers are generally hot and humid while winters are cold and dry. The other areas in South America characterized by continental climate include the central and east of the capital Santiago and the interior of the Aysen region.

Vegetation of Continental Climate

The continental climate is found mainly in the inland and eastern parts of a continent. The warm summer and cold winter encourage the growth of diverse plants, from plants to perennial and ground covers. Large parts of the climate area were covered with forests before the lands were cleared for agriculture. The forests within the climate zone are divided into coniferous and deciduous. Some of the plants common in continental climate regions include silver maple, Carolina lupine, and lavender. This zone also holds different types of animals including birds and snakes.


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