Atmospheric science is the study of the atmosphere—the blanket of air covering the Earth. Atmospheric scientists study the atmosphere's physical characteristics, motions, and processes, and the way in which these factors affect the rest of our environment. The best-known application of this knowledge is forecasting the weather. In addition to predicting the weather, atmospheric scientists attempt to identify and interpret climate trends, understand past weather, and analyze current weather. Weather information and atmospheric research are also applied in air-pollution control, agriculture, forestry, air and sea transportation, defense, and the study of possible trends in the Earth's climate, such as global warming, droughts, and ozone depletion.
Atmospheric scientists who forecast the weather are known as operational meteorologists; they are the largest group of specialists. These scientists study the Earth's air pressure, temperature, humidity, and wind velocity, and they apply physical and mathematical relationships to make short-range and long-range weather forecasts. Their data come from weather satellites, radars, sensors, and stations in many parts of the world. Meteorologists use sophisticated computer models of the world's atmosphere to make long-term, short-term, and local-area forecasts. More accurate instruments for measuring and observing weather conditions, as well as high-speed computers to process and analyze weather data, have revolutionized weather forecasting. Using satellite data, climate theory, and sophisticated computer models of the world's atmosphere, meteorologists can more effectively interpret the results of these models to make local-area weather predictions. These forecasts inform not only the general public, but also those who need accurate weather information for economic and safety reasons, such as the shipping, air transportation, agriculture, fishing, forestry, and utilities industries.
Meteorologists use data collected from sophisticated technologies like atmospheric satellite monitoring equipment and ground-based radar systems. Doppler radar, for example, can detect airflow patterns in violent storm systems, allowing forecasters to better predict thunderstorms, flash floods, tornadoes, and other hazardous winds, and to monitor the direction and intensity of storms. They also monitor surface weather stations and launch weather balloons, which carry equipment that measures wind, temperature, and humidity in the upper atmosphere.
While meteorologists study and forecast weather patterns in the short term, climatologists study seasonal variations in weather over months, years, or even centuries. They may collect, analyze, and interpret past records of wind, rainfall, sunshine, and temperature in specific areas or regions. Some look at patterns in weather over past years to determine, for example, whether a coming season will be colder or warmer than usual. Their studies are used to design buildings, plan heating and cooling systems, and aid in effective land use and agricultural production.
Some atmospheric scientists work exclusively in research. Physical meteorologists, for example, study the atmosphere's chemical and physical properties; the transmission of light, sound, and radio waves; and the transfer of energy in the atmosphere. They also study other atmospheric phenomena, such as the factors affecting the formation of clouds, rain, and snow; the dispersal of air pollutants over urban areas; and the mechanics of severe storms. Environmental problems, such as pollution and shortages of fresh water, have widened the scope of the meteorological profession. Environmental meteorologists study these problems and may evaluate and report on air quality for environmental impact statements. Other research meteorologists examine the most effective ways to control or diminish air pollution.
Atmospheric scientists, including meteorologists held about 10,700 jobs in 2020. The largest employers of atmospheric scientists, including meteorologists were as follows:
- Federal government, excluding postal service - 30%
- Research and development in the physical, engineering, and life sciences - 18%
- Television broadcasting - 11%
- Management, scientific, and technical consulting services - 6%
In the federal government, most atmospheric scientists work as weather forecasters with the National Weather Service of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in weather stations throughout the United States—at airports, in or near cities, and in isolated and remote areas. In smaller stations, they often work alone; in larger ones, they work as part of a team. In addition, hundreds of members of the Armed Forces are involved in atmospheric science.
Atmospheric scientists involved in professional, scientific, and technical services or research often work in offices and laboratories. Some may travel frequently to collect data in the field and to observe weather events, such as tornadoes, up close. They also observe actual weather conditions from the ground or from an aircraft.
Broadcast meteorologists present their reports to the general public from television and radio studios. They also may broadcast from outdoor locations to tell audiences about current weather conditions.
Atmospheric scientists who work in private industry may have to travel to meet with clients or to gather information in the field. For example, forensic meteorologists may need to collect information from the scene of an accident as part of their investigation.
Most atmospheric scientists work full time. Weather conditions can change quickly, so weather forecasters need to continuously monitor conditions. Many, especially entry-level staff at field stations, work rotating shifts to ensure staff coverage for all 24 hours in a day. For this reason, they may work nights, weekends, and holidays. In addition, they may work extended hours during severe weather, such as hurricanes. Some work more than 40 hours per week. Other atmospheric scientists have a standard workweek, although researchers may work nights and weekends on particular projects.
Education & Training Required
The preferred educational requirement for entry-level meteorologists in the Federal Government is a bachelor's degree—not necessarily in meteorology—with at least 24 semester hours of meteorology/atmospheric science courses, including 6 hours in the analysis and prediction of weather systems, 6 hours of atmospheric dynamics and thermodynamics, 3 hours of physical meteorology, and 2 hours of remote sensing of the atmosphere or instrumentation. Other required courses include 3 semester hours of ordinary differential equations, 6 hours of college physics, and at least 9 hours of courses appropriate for a physical science major—such as statistics, chemistry, physical oceanography, physical climatology, physical hydrology, radiative transfer, aeronomy (the study of the upper atmosphere), advanced thermodynamics, advanced electricity and magnetism, light and optics, and computer science.
Although positions in operational meteorology are available for those with only a bachelor's degree, obtaining a second bachelor's degree in a related technical field or a master's degree enhances employment opportunities, pay, and advancement potential. A Ph.D. typically is required only for research positions at universities. Students planning on a career in research and development do not necessarily need to major in atmospheric science or meteorology as an undergraduate. In fact, a bachelor's degree in mathematics, physics, or engineering provides excellent preparation for graduate study in atmospheric science.
Because atmospheric science is a small field, relatively few colleges and universities offer degrees in meteorology or atmospheric science, although many departments of physics, earth science, geography, and geophysics offer atmospheric science and related courses. In 2009, the American Meteorological Society listed approximately 100 undergraduate and graduate atmospheric science programs. Many of these programs combine the study of meteorology with another field, such as agriculture, hydrology, oceanography, engineering, or physics. For example, hydrometeorology is the blending of hydrology (the science of Earth's water) and meteorology, and is the field concerned with the effect of precipitation on the hydrologic cycle and the environment.
Prospective students should make certain that courses required by the National Weather Service and other employers are offered at the college they are considering. Computer science courses, additional meteorology courses, a strong background in mathematics and physics, and good communication skills are important to prospective employers.
Students also should take courses in subjects that are most relevant to their desired area of specialization. For example, those who wish to become broadcast meteorologists for radio or television stations should develop excellent communication skills through courses in speech, journalism, and related fields. Students interested in air quality work should take courses in chemistry and supplement their technical training with coursework in policy or government affairs. Prospective meteorologists seeking opportunities at weather consulting firms should possess knowledge of business, statistics, and economics, as an increasing emphasis is being placed on long-range seasonal forecasting to assist businesses.
Beginning atmospheric scientists often do routine data collection, computation, or analysis, and some basic forecasting. Entry-level operational meteorologists in the Federal Government usually are placed in intern positions for training and experience. During this period, they learn about the Weather Service's forecasting equipment and procedures, and rotate to different offices to learn about various weather systems. After completing the training period, they are assigned to a permanent duty station.
How to Advance
The American Meteorological Society (AMS) offers the Certified Consulting Meteorologist professional certification for consulting meteorologists. Applicants must meet formal education requirements, pass an examination to demonstrate thorough meteorological knowledge, have a minimum of 5 years of experience or a combination of experience plus an advanced degree, and provide character references from fellow professionals. In addition, AMS also offers the Certified Broadcast Meteorologist designation for meteorologists in television and radio. Applicants must hold a bachelor's degree in atmospheric science or meteorology, complete an examination, and submit examples of their weather broadcasts for review. Both certifications also require periodic continuing education.
Experienced meteorologists may advance to supervisory or administrative jobs, or may handle more complex forecasting jobs. After several years of experience, some meteorologists establish their own weather consulting services.
Employment of atmospheric scientists, including meteorologists is projected to grow 8 percent from 2020 to 2030, about as fast as the average for all occupations.
About 1,000 openings for atmospheric scientists, including meteorologists are projected each year, on average, over the decade. Many of those openings are expected to result from the need to replace workers who transfer to different occupations or exit the labor force, such as to retire.
New types of computer models have vastly improved the accuracy of forecasts and allowed atmospheric scientists to tailor forecasts to specific purposes. This should maintain, and perhaps increase, the need for atmospheric scientists working in private industry as businesses demand more specialized weather information.
Businesses increasingly rely on just-in-time delivery to avoid the expenses incurred by traditional inventory management methods. Severe weather can interrupt ground or air transportation and delay inventory delivery. Businesses have begun to maintain forecasting teams around the clock to advise delivery personnel, and this availability helps them stay on schedule. In addition, severe weather patterns have become widely recognizable, and industries have become increasingly concerned about their impact, which will create demand for work in atmospheric science.
As utility companies continue to adopt wind and solar power, they must depend more heavily on weather forecasting to arrange for buying and selling power. This should lead to increased reliance on atmospheric scientists employed in firms in professional, scientific, and technical services to help utilities know when they can sell their excess power, and when they will need to buy.
The median annual wage for atmospheric scientists, including meteorologists was $94,570 in May 2021. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $48,600, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $150,760.
In May 2021, the median annual wages for atmospheric scientists, including meteorologists in the top industries in which they worked were as follows:
- Federal government, excluding postal service - $108,060
- Research and development in the physical, engineering, and life sciences - $101,180
- Management, scientific, and technical consulting services - $74,870
- Television broadcasting - $72,800
Most atmospheric scientists work full time. Weather conditions can change quickly, so weather forecasters need to continuously monitor conditions. Many, especially entry-level staff at field stations, work rotating shifts to ensure staff coverage for all 24 hours in a day, and they may work on nights, weekends, and holidays. In addition, they may work extended hours during severe weather, such as hurricanes. Some work more than 40 hours per week. Other atmospheric scientists have a standard workweek, although researchers may work nights and weekends on particular projects.