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Continental climate is a climate characterized by important annual variation in temperature due to the lack of significant bodies of water nearby. Often winter temperature is cold enough to support a fixed period of snow each year, and relatively moderate precipitation occurring mostly in summer, although there are exceptions such as the upper east coast areas of North America in Canada which show an even distribution of precipitation: this pattern is called Humid continental climate, but dry continental climates also exist. Regions with a continental climate exist in portions of the Northern Hemisphere continents (especially North America and Asia), and at higher elevations in other parts of the world.
Only a few areas, in the mountains of the Pacific Northwest of North America and in Iran, northern Iraq, adjacent Turkey, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Central Asia show a winter maximum in precipitation.
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The timing of intermediate spring-like or autumn-like temperatures in this zone vary depending on latitude and/or elevation. For example, spring may arrive as soon as early March in the southern parts of this zone, or as late as May in the north. Annual precipitation in this zone is usually between 600 millimetres (24 in) to 1,200 millimetres (47 in), most of it in the form of snow during winter. It also has cold winters and warm summers.
Most such areas fit Köppen classifications of Dfa, Dwa (cold winters, hot summers; "w" indicating very dry winters characteristic especially of China) or Dfb or Dwb (cold winters, warm summers, same distinction for winter dryness). Dry summer continental climates (Dsa and Dsb) exist in high altitude areas near Mediterranean climates.
Continental climates exist where cold air masses infiltrate during the winter and warm air masses form in summer under conditions of high sun and long days. Places with continental climates are as a rule either far from any moderating effects of oceans (examples: Omaha, Nebraska, USA and Kazan, Russia) or are so situated that prevailing winds tend to head offshore (example: Vladivostok, Russia). Such regions get quite warm in the summer, achieving temperatures characteristic of tropical climates but are much colder than any other climates of similar latitude in the winter.
These climates grade off toward subtropical climates equator-ward where winters are less severe and semiarid climates where precipitation becomes inadequate for tall-grass prairies. In Europe these climates may grade off into oceanic climates in which the influence of moderating air masses is more marked toward the west. The subarctic climate (Köppen: Dfc), with very cold, long and dry winters, but with at least one month above 10 °C (50 °F), might be considered a sub-type of the continental climate.
Example of areas of the world with continental climates are the Northern USA (Intermountain West, Midwestern, New England), southern Canada, inland and northeastern China, Korea, northern Japan, most of Russia and Bosnia, parts of Norway, Sweden, inner parts of Spain and Turkey, parts of north and north-west of Iran, northern Iraq specifically Iraqi Kurdistan, Poland, Czech Republic, Austria, some parts of Germany, Slovakia, Slovenia, Hungary, Romania, Moldova, Ukraine, Armenia, Belarus, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Finland. A continental climate can also be found in many valleys around mountains in the North Temperate Zone; such as the Alps (in France, Italy, Switzerland and Austria), the Pyrenees (in Spain, Andorra and France) or the Himalayas (in Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, China, Nepal, Burma and Bhutan).
Continental climates generally do not exist in the Southern Hemisphere due to the lack of broad land masses at middle latitudes, the southernmost parts of Africa and Australia being under marine influences and southern South America being too narrow in breadth to allow cold air masses to form. However, certain areas, such as New Zealand's South Island high country, experience conditions similar to those of continental climates. Antarctica lies completely outside the middle latitudes.
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