Atmospheric scientists study the weather and climate, and how those conditions affect human activity and the earth in general. They may develop forecasts, collect and compile data from the field, assist in the development of new data collection instruments, or advise clients on risks or opportunities caused by weather events and climate change.
Atmospheric scientists typically do the following:
Measure temperature, atmospheric pressure, humidity, wind speed, dew point, and other properties of the atmosphere
Use computer models that analyze data about the atmosphere (also called meteorological data)
Write computer programs to support their modeling efforts
Generate weather graphics for users
Report current weather conditions
Prepare long- and short-term weather forecasts by using computers, mathematical models, satellites, radar, and local station data
Plan, organize, and participate in outreach programs aimed at educating the public about weather
Issue warnings to protect life and property when threatened by severe weather, such as hurricanes, tornadoes, and flash floods
Produce forecasts for transportation activities, including aviation, boating and shipping, and road transportation
Atmospheric scientists use highly developed instruments and computer programs to do their jobs. For example, they use weather balloons, radar systems, and satellites to monitor the weather and collect data. The data they collect and analyze are critical to understanding air pollution, drought, changes in the ozone layer, long-term changes in the climate, and other issues. Atmospheric scientists also use graphics software to illustrate their forecasts and reports in order to advise their clients or the public.
Many atmospheric scientists work with other geoscientists or even social scientists to help solve problems in areas such as commerce, energy, transportation, agriculture, and the environment. For example, some atmospheric scientists work on teams with engineers and geologists to find the best locations for new wind farms, which are groups of wind turbines used to generate electricity. Others work closely with hydrologists and politicians to study the impact climate change may have on water supplies and to manage water resources.
The following are examples of types of atmospheric scientists:
Atmospheric chemists study atmospheric components, reactions, measurement techniques, and processes. They study climates and gases, chemical reactions that occur in clouds, and ultraviolet radiation.
Atmospheric physicists and dynamists study the physical movements and interactions that occur in the atmosphere. They may study how terrain affects weather and causes turbulence, how solar phenomena affect satellite communications and navigation, or they may study the causes and effects of lightning.
Broadcast meteorologists give forecasts to the general public through television, radio, and the Internet. They use graphics software to develop maps and charts that explain their forecasts. Not all weather broadcasters seen on television are meteorologists or atmospheric scientists. For more information on broadcasters who do not have specific training in meteorology, but present weather conditions and forecasts, see the profile on reporters, correspondents, and broadcast news analysts.
Climatologists study historical weather patterns to interpret long-term weather patterns or shifts in climate by using primarily statistical methods. Global climate change is the main area of study for climatologists. Paleoclimatology is a specialization within this field. Climatologists who specialize in paleoclimatology may take samples from icebergs and other sources to gather data on the atmosphere that cover very long periods of time.
Climate scientists work on the theoretical foundations and the modeling of climate change. The nature of this work requires the use of complex mathematical models to try to forecast many months, and sometimes longer, into the future. Their studies can be used to design buildings, plan heating and cooling systems, and aid in efficient land use and agricultural production.
Forensic meteorologists use historical weather data to reconstruct the weather conditions for a specific location and time. They investigate what role weather played in unusual events such as traffic accidents and fires. Forensic meteorologists may be called as experts to testify in court.
Research meteorologists develop new methods of data collection, observation, and forecasting. They also conduct studies to improve basic understandings of climate, weather, and other aspects of the atmosphere. For example, some research meteorologists study severe weather patterns, such as hurricanes and tornadoes, to understand why cyclones form and to develop better ways of predicting them. Others focus on environmental problems, such as air pollution. Research meteorologists often work with scientists in other fields. For example, they may work with computer scientists to develop new forecasting software or with oceanographers to study interactions between the ocean and the atmosphere. They may also work with engineers to develop new instruments so that they can collect the data they need.
Weather forecasters use computer and mathematical models to produce weather reports and short-term forecasts that can range from a few minutes to more than a week. They develop forecasts for the general public and for specific customers such as airports, farmers, utilities, insurance companies, and other businesses. For example, they may provide forecasts to power suppliers so that the suppliers can plan for events, such as heat waves, which would cause a change in electricity demand. They also issue advanced warnings for potentially severe weather such as blizzards and hurricanes. Some forecasters prepare long-range outlooks to predict whether temperatures and precipitation levels will be above or below average in a particular month or season. These workers become familiar with general weather patterns, atmospheric predictability, precipitation, and forecasting techniques.
Some people with an atmospheric science background may become professors or teachers. For more information, see the profile on postsecondary teachers.