Köppen Climate Classification System

North America Köppen Map

Peel, M. C., Finlayson, B. L., and McMahon, T. A., 2007/Wikimedia Commons

Have you ever wondered why one part of the world is a desert, another a rainforest, and yet another a frozen tundra? It's all thanks to climate.

Climate tells you what the average state of the atmosphere is, and is based on the weather a place sees over a long time—usually 30 years or more. And like the weather, which has many different types, there are many different types of climates found across the globe. The Köppen Climate system describes each of these climate types.

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Koppen Classifies the World's Many Climates

Koppen Climate world map
Map of the world's Koppen Climate types, as of 2007.

Peel et al., 2007/Wikimedia Commons

Named for German climatologist Wladamir Köppen, the Köppen Climate System was developed in 1884 and is still how we group the world's climates today.

According to Köppen, a location's climate could be inferred simply be observing the plant life native to the area. And since what species of trees, grasses, and plants thrive depends on how much average annual precipitation, average monthly precipitation, and the average monthly air temperature a place sees, Köppen based his climate categories on these measurements. Köppen said that when observing these, all climates around the world fall into one of five major types:

  • Tropical (A)
  • Dry (B)
  • Temperate/Mid-latitude Humid (C)
  • Continental/Mid-latitude Dry (D)
  • Polar (E)

Instead of having to write the full name of each climate group type, Köppen abbreviated each by a capital letter (the letters you see next to each climate category above). 

Each of these 5 climate categories can be further divided up into sub-categories based on a region's precipitation patterns and seasonal temperatures. In Köppen's scheme, these are also represented by letters (lowercase), with the second letter indicating the precipitation pattern and the third letter, the degree of summer heat or winter cold.

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Tropical Climates

Tropical Rain

Rick Elkins/Getty Images

Tropical climates are known for their high temperatures (which they experience year-round) and their high annual rainfall. All months have average temperatures above 64°F (18°C), which means there is no snowfall, even in winter season months. 

Micro-climates under Climate Category A

  • f = Wet (from German "feucht" for moist)
  • m = Monsoonal
  • w = Winter dry season

And so, the range of tropical climates includes: Af, Am, Aw.

Locations along the equator including the U.S. Caribbean Islands, the northern half of South America, and the Indonesian archipelago tend to have tropical climates.

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Dry Climates

White Sands National Monument, New Mexico

David H. Carriere/Getty Images

Dry climates experience similar temperatures as tropical but see little annual precipitation. As a result of the hot and dry weather trends, evaporation often exceeds precipitation. 

Micro-climates under Climate Category B

  • S = Semi-arid/Steppe
  • W = Desert (from German "Wüste" for wasteland)

B climates can also be narrowed even further with the following criteria:

  • h = Hot (from German "heiss" for hot)
  • k = Cold (from German "kalt" for cold)

And so, the range of dry climates includes: BWh, BWk, BSh, BSk.

The U.S. Desert Southwest, Saharan Africa, Middle Eastern Europe, and interior of Australia are examples of locations with arid and semi-arid climates.

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Temperate Climates

China, near Beijing, Great Wall of China , Mutianyu section
East and Central China has a largely temperate climate.

MATTES René/Getty Images

Temperate climates are influenced by both the land and water that surrounds them, which means they have warm-to-hot summers and mild winters. (In general, the coldest month has an average temperature between 27°F (-3°C) and 64°F (18°C)).

Micro-climates under Climate Category C

  • w = Winter dry season
  • s = Summer dry season
  • f = Wet (from German "feucht" for moist)

C climates can also be narrowed even further with the following criteria:

  • a = Hot summer 
  • b = Mild summer
  • c = Cool

And so, the range of temperate climates includes: Cwa, Cwb, Cwc, Csa (Mediterranean)CsbCfaCfb (oceanic)Cfc

The Southern U.S., British Isles, and the Mediterranean are a few locations whose climate falls under this type.

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Continental Climates

Northern Lights Over Snowy Trees

Amana Images Inc/Getty Images

The continental climate group is the largest of Köppen's climates. As the name implies, these climates are generally found in the interiors of large land masses. Their temperatures vary widely—they see warm summers and cold winters—and they receive modest precipitation. (The warmest month has an average temperature above 50°F (10°C); whereas the coldest month has an average temperature below 27°F (-3°C).) 

Micro-climates under Climate Category D

  • s = Summer dry season
  • w = Winter dry season
  • f = Wet (from German "feucht" for moist)

D climates can also be narrowed even further with the following criteria:

  • a = Hot summer 
  • b = Mild summer
  • c = Cool
  • d = Very cold winter

And so, the range of continental climates includes Dsa, Dsb, Dsc, Dsd, Dwa, Dwb, DwcDwdDfaDfbDfcDfd.

Locations in this climate group include the northeastern tier of the U.S., Canada, and Russia.  

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Polar Climates

Snow-capped mountains in the Errera Channel on the western side of the Antarctic Peninsula, Antarctica, Southern Ocean, Polar Regions

Michael Nolan/Getty Images

As it sounds, a polar climate is one that sees very cold winters and summers. In fact, ice and tundra are nearly always around. Above freezing temperatures are typically felt less than half of the year. The warmest month has an average below 50°F (10°C).

Micro-climates under Climate Category E

  • T = Tundra
  • F = Frozen

And so, the range of polar climates includes ET, EF.

Greenland and Antarctica should come to mind when you think of locations characterized by polar climates. 

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Highland Climates

USA, Washington, Mt. Rainier National Park, hiker on path
Mount Rainier National Park has a highland climate.

Rene Frederick/Getty Images

You may have heard of a sixth Köppen climate type called Highland (H). This group was not a part of Köppen's original or revised scheme but was later added to accommodate the changes in climate as one climbs a mountain. For example, while the climate at the base of a mountain may be the same as the surrounding climate type, say, temperate, as you move up in elevation, the mountain may have cooler temperatures and more snow—even in summer. 

Just as it sounds, highland or alpine climates are found in the world's high mountain regions. The temperature and precipitation highland climates get depends on elevation, and therefore widely varies from mountain to mountain.

Unlike the other climate categories, the highland group has no subcategories.

The Cascades, Sierra Nevadas, and Rocky Mountains of North America; the Andes of South America; and the Himalayas and Tibetan Plateau all have highland climates.

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Means, Tiffany. "Köppen Climate Classification System." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/the-worlds-koppen-climates-4109230. Means, Tiffany. (2023, April 5). Köppen Climate Classification System. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/the-worlds-koppen-climates-4109230 Means, Tiffany. "Köppen Climate Classification System." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/the-worlds-koppen-climates-4109230 (accessed June 5, 2023).