Due to its large size and wide range of geographic features, the United States contains examples of nearly every global climate. The climate is temperate in most areas, subtropical in the Deep South, tropical in Hawaii and southern Florida, polar in Alaska, semiarid in the Great Plains west of the 100th meridian, Mediterranean in coastal California and arid in the Great Basin. Its comparatively favorable agricultural climate contributed (in part) to the country's rise as a world power, with infrequent severe drought in the major agricultural regions, a general lack of widespread flooding, and a mainly temperate climate that receives adequate precipitation.
The main influence on U.S. weather is the polar jet stream, which brings in large low pressure systems from the northern Pacific Ocean. The Cascade Range, Sierra Nevada, and Rocky Mountains pick up most of the moisture from these systems as they move eastward. Greatly diminished by the time they reach the High Plains, much of the moisture has been sapped by the orographic effect as it is forced over several mountain ranges. However, once it moves over the Great Plains, uninterrupted flat land allows it to reorganize and can lead to major clashes of air masses. In addition, moisture from the Gulf of Mexico is often drawn northward. When combined with a powerful jet stream, this can lead to violent thunderstorms, especially during spring and summer. Sometimes during late winter and spring these storms can combine with another low pressure system as they move up the East Coast and into the Atlantic Ocean, where they intensify rapidly. These storms are known as Nor'easters and often bring widespread, heavy snowfall to the Mid-Atlantic and New England. The uninterrupted flat grasslands of the Great Plains also leads to some of the most extreme climate swings in the world. Temperatures can rise or drop rapidly and winds can be extreme, and the flow of heat waves or Arctic air masses often advance uninterrupted through the plains.
The Great Basin and Columbia Plateau (the Intermontane Plateaus) are arid or semiarid regions that lie in the rain shadow of the Cascades and Sierra Nevada. Precipitation averages less than 15 inches (38 cm). The Southwest is a hot desert, with temperatures exceeding 100 °F (37.8 °C) for several weeks at a time in summer. The Southwest and the Great Basin are also affected by the monsoon from the Gulf of California from July-September, which brings localized but often severe thunderstorms to the region.
Much of California consists of a Mediterranean climate, with sometimes excessive rainfall from October-April and nearly no rain the rest of the year. In the Pacific Northwest rain falls year-round, but is much heavier during winter and spring. The mountains of the west receive abundant precipitation and very heavy snowfall. The Cascades are one of the snowiest places in the world, with some places averaging over 600 inches (1,524 cm) of snow annually, but the lower elevations closer to the coast receive very little snow. Another significant (but localized) weather effect is lake-effect snow that falls south and east of the Great Lakes, especially in the hilly portions of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and on the Tug Hill Plateau in New York.The lake effect dumped well over 5 feet (1.52 m) of snow in the Buffalo, New York area throughout the 2006-2007 winter The Wasatch Front and Wasatch Range in Utah can also receive significant lake effect accumulations off of the Great Salt Lake.
In northern Alaska, tundra and arctic conditions predominate, and the temperature has fallen as low as −80 °F (−62.2 °C). On the other end of the spectrum, Death Valley, California once reached 134 °F (56.7 °C), the second-highest temperature ever recorded on Earth.
On average, the mountains of the western states receive the highest levels of snowfall on Earth. The greatest annual snowfall level is at Mount Rainier in Washington, at 692 inches (1,758 cm); the record there was 1,122 inches (2,850 cm) in the winter of 1971–72. This record was broken by the Mt. Baker Ski Area in northwestern Washington which reported 1,140 inches (2,896 cm) of snowfall for the 1998-99 snowfall season. Other places with significant snowfall outside the Cascade Range are the Wasatch Mountains, near the Great Salt Lake, and the Sierra Nevada, near Lake Tahoe. In the east, while snowfall does not approach western levels, the region near the Great Lakes and the mountains of the Northeast receive the most. Along the northwestern Pacific coast, rainfall is greater than anywhere else in the continental U.S., with Quinault Rainforest in Washington having an average of 137 inches (348 cm).Hawaii receives even more, with 460 inches (1,168 cm) measured annually on Mount Waialeale, in Kauai. The Mojave Desert, in the southwest, is home to the driest locale in the U.S. Yuma, Arizona, has an average of 2.63 inches (6.7 cm) of precipitation each year.
In central portions of the U.S., tornadoes are more common than anywhere else on Earthand touch down most commonly in the spring and summer. Deadly and destructive hurricanes occur almost every year along the Atlantic seaboard and the Gulf of Mexico. The Appalachian region and the Midwest experience the worst floods, though virtually no area in the U.S. is immune to flooding. The Southwest has the worst droughts; one is thought to have lasted over 500 years and to have decimated the Anasazi people.The West is affected by large wildfires each year.