Common Misconceptions about Polar Weather and Climate

Weather and climate are complex topics full of cause and effect relationships. The complexity of the scientific concepts makes them particularly prone to misconception and partial understanding. Additionally, students are often exposed to many nonscientific explanations for weather phenomena such as thunder, lightning and rain. It is important, therefore, that teachers take the time to assess and target these misconceptions during the course of instruction.

In this article, we’ve listed some common misconceptions that researchers tell us students may hold about weather, climate change, and polar weather and climate. This list is meant to stimulate your thinking about the ideas your students bring to the classroom. We’ve also included formative assessment probes, which are modeled (with permission from NSTA Press) after those found in Uncovering Student Ideas in Science, Volumes 1, 2, and 3, as well as lessons and activities to shape students’ understanding of these concepts.


Misconceptions About Weather

Students may think… Instead of thinking…
The seasons cause the weather to change. Certain weather patterns and temperatures are associated with a particular season. A season is simply a human classification, not a force that causes weather.
Clouds form because cold air doesn’t hold as much water as warm air. Cloud formation depends on the balance between water evaporating and condensing. Water molecules are continually changing state between solid, liquid, and gas. Clouds form when more molecules evaporate into the atmosphere than can condense on earth.
Clouds are made of water vapor. Clouds are mainly tiny water droplets or ice crystals. Water vapor is invisible.
Clouds always predict rain. Clouds may predict but do not guarantee rain.
Raindrops look like tear drops. Raindrops are spherical.
Rain falls when clouds become too heavy. Rain falls when the water droplets in the cloud become too heavy to remain airborne.
Rain falls because we need it. Rain falls whether we need it or not.
Lightning never strikes the same place twice. Lightning tends to strike the highest place in an area, so the same place may be struck more than once.
Thunder occurs when two clouds collide. Thunder (and lightning) are the result of a large transfer of charge between clouds.
Air and oxygen are the same thing. Air is a mixture of gases.
Humidity is moisture in the air. Humidity is the amount of water vapor in the air.
Humid air is heavy or more dense than dry air. Humid air is less dense than dry air. Students are probably thinking of their experience on hot, humid days.
Hot air weighs less than cold air. Both hot and cold air have the same weight.
The atmosphere is made up solely of air. There are many particles in the atmosphere which we cannot see because of their size.
Clouds block wind and slow it down. Winds are a result of the uneven heating of Earth’s surface and the resulting rise and fall of differently heated air masses.
Cold temperatures produce fast winds. Winds are a result of the uneven heating of Earth’s surface and the resulting rise and fall of differently heated air masses.
Snow and ice make it cold. Snow and ice are a result of cold temperatures, not the cause.
Cold days are caused by the clouds covering the sun. Temperature depends on many factors, such as time of year, location, elevation, and winds.

Misconceptions About Climate Change

Students may think… Instead of thinking…
Global warming and the greenhouse effect are the same thing. Global warming refers to the fact that the surface of Earth is getting hotter. The greenhouse effect refers to the fact that Earth is warmer with an atmosphere than it would be without.
The greenhouse effect is bad and will eventually cause all living things to die. Without the greenhouse effect, Earth would not be warm enough to support life. The increase in temperature due to increased greenhouse gases in the atmosphere will have negative effects.
Ozone is bad (or that it is good). Ozone may be harmful or helpful, depending on its location. In the upper atmosphere, ozone blocks harmful UV radiation. In the lower atmosphere, it is a source of smog.
The ozone hole is a hole in the sky. The ozone hole is an area of the atmosphere where there are lower than expected levels of ozone.

Misconceptions About Polar Weather and Climate

Students may think… Instead of thinking…
There is only one season in the polar regions. (Polar regions are dark, frozen places year-round.) The polar regions experience a dramatic change in season and in daylight from summer to winter.
Temperatures are similar at both poles. Antarctica is much colder than the Arctic.
Antarctica is humid because of frozen ice caps. Antarctica is very dry and is essentially a frozen desert.
It snows a lot at the poles. It does not snow very much at the poles (especially Antarctica) due to low humidity. Large amounts of ice and snow are due to the fact that melting doesn’t occur.
The polar regions are not important for global climate. The polar regions play an important role in global climate.
The ozone hole is the cause of global warming. Global warming is due to an increase in greenhouse gases (such as carbon dioxide) in the atmosphere.

Probing For Student Understanding

Volume 3 of Uncovering Student Ideas in Science: 25 More Formative Assessment Probes (NSTA Press) contains two probes related to the study of weather:

What Are Clouds Made Of? – This probe is designed to assess whether students recognize that clouds are made up of tiny droplets of water or tiny ice crystals.

Rainfall – This probe is designed to assess whether students understand what causes the water in clouds to fall as rain.
In addition, we’ve followed the model used by Page Keeley and coauthors in the three volumes of Uncovering Student Ideas in Science (¬© 2005-2008 by NSTA Press) and created a similar probe to elicit students’ ideas about weather in the Arctic and Antarctica.

Weather at the North and South Poles Probe
This formative assessment probe is designed to assess student misconceptions about the weather and climate at the North and South Poles.

In addition to ready-made probes, activities such as student journaling, interviews, and whole-class discussion can provide great insight into the ideas your students hold. Even simple conversations in the classroom can be informative and lead to change in both teaching and learning.

Teaching the Science

While identifying student misconceptions is fairly straightforward, creating conceptual change is not. Researchers recommend using a hands-on approach and providing adequate time and repeated activities to create the conditions necessary for conceptual change. However, it is important to understand that children may be quite resistant to change even when these suggestions are carefully followed. In some situations, researchers found that students developed two parallel explanations for scientific events: one for science class and one for the “real world!” Instead of becoming discouraged, teachers should be aware of the ideas that students bring with them to science and how these might influence instruction and learning.

For lessons and activities about weather, climate, and the polar regions, please see “Hands-On Science and Literacy Lessons About Weather and Climate” in the Science and Literacy department of this issue.

Read the entire National Science Education Standards online for free or register to download the free PDF. The content standards are found in Chapter 6.

National Science Education Standards

Assessing and targeting student misconceptions about weather and climate meets the Earth and Space Science Content Standard of the National Science Education Standards.


Henriques, L. “Children’s misconceptions about weather: A review of the literature.” National Association of Research in Science Teaching annual meeting, New Orleans, 29 April 2000.

This article was written by Jessica Fries-Gaither. For more information, see the Contributors page. Email Kimberly Lightle, Principal Investigator, with any questions about the content of this site.

Copyright June 2008 – The Ohio State University. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 0733024. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. This work is licensed under an Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported Creative Commons license.

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