What type of climate does Kansas have? It just depends on who you ask. There are several different systems of climate classification, and each one will give you a slightly different answer.
The North Temperate Zone
The northern hemisphere is often loosely broken into three regions:
The north temperate zone lies in between the two other zones, stretching from about 23.5°N to about 66.5°N. Included in this temperate zone is a region known as the subtropics. The subtropics extend from about 23.5°N to about 38°N.
The northern boundary of Kansas runs along the 40th parallel, while the southern boundary runs along the 37th. Therefore, the whole state lies within the north temperate zone, while the southern third is subtropical.
A subtropical climate generally has a mean temperature above 50°F for eight months of the year. The coldest month of the year has an average temperature between 35.6°F and 55.4°F. Compare this description of a typical subtropical climate to the climate in “subtropical” Wichita, which has a mean temperature above 50°F for seven months and a mean temperature of 33°F in January.
Furthermore, the north temperate zone is generally considered to have a mild climate, not tending toward extremes at any season. This description rarely holds true in inland areas such as Kansas.
Also notice that classifying climates by latitude fails to take annual precipitation into account.
Because of the shortcomings of this strictly geographical description of climates, a more complex classification system was introduced.
In 1884, climatologist Wladimir Köppen developed a new system of describing climates based on both temperatures and precipitation. His goal was to classify climates in a manner that would accurately reflect the native plant types found in each region. He revised his ideas extensively over the next 50 years. The Köppen system is still widely used today.
The five major climate types in the Köppen system are as follows:
- Temperate, or hot moderate.
- Continental, or cold moderate.
- Polar and alpine.
Each of these major groups is subdivided into a number of variations.
Under the original Köppen system, Kansas would have three types of climate:
- Humid continental, hot summer subtype.
- Humid temperate, hot summer subtype.
- Semi-arid and cold.
A humid continental climate has a mean temperature between 29.9°F and 32°F in the coldest month of the year. At least four months of the year, however, are above 50°F. In the hot summer variation of this climate, the warmest month averages above 71.6°F. The precipitation is also too high to qualify the climate as semi-arid. Most of Kansas would fit into this category.
Parts of south-central and southeast Kansas may or may not be considered humid temperate, depending on who you ask. Climatologists are still debating the precise definition of a temperate climate. Some feel that a mean temperature above 50°F for eight months of the year is the defining characteristic of this type of climate, which would disqualify Kansas altogether. One of the hottest towns in Kansas, based on average annual temperatures, is Coffeyville, which has mean temperatures over 50°F for only seven months in a year. Other climatologists provide looser definitions that could push the line as far north as the 39th parallel.
Parts of western Kansas would be described as semi-arid and cold. “Cold” in this case simply means less than tropical. In other words, although the summers are often quite hot, the winters are cold and some snowfall is possible.
USDA plant hardiness zones reflect local variations a little better than the Köppen system. Based strictly on annual minimum temperatures, not on precipitation, Kansas falls into four zones:
- 5b (-15 to -10°F).
- 6a (-10 to -5°F).
- 6b (-5 to 0°F).
- 7a (0 to 5°F).
The northern tier of counties generally falls within 5b, while the majority of the state qualifies as 6a. The 6b zone covers most of southeast and south-central Kansas, along with the southernmost tier of counties in the western third of the state. 7a conditions are found in isolated parts of Harper and Sumner counties.
Of course, complicated classification systems always have shortcomings. One of the biggest shortcomings of the Köppen system is that it cannot reflect the fact that climates are not marked by sharp boundaries. This is partly why climatologists have such a hard time drawing the line between the continental and temperate parts of the United States. Also, the transition between humid eastern Kansas and the semi-arid High Plains is quite gradual. While a Köppen map must of necessity mark the difference in rainfall as a solid line, in real life one zone blends into the next. Perhaps describing the central part of Kansas as “sub-humid” would provide the best idea of actual conditions.
The USDA zone map has enough subcategories to reflect local differences, but of course its purpose was not to describe climates. Therefore, it does not take precipitation into account.
So what is the climate of Kansas? Perhaps one of the most accurate ways to understand it is to compare the zone map with an annual precipitation map. Kansas offers a number of fine shades between humid and semi-arid and between fairly warm and somewhat cool. What the exact climate is will just depend on where you are in the state.