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Job Descriptions, Definitions Roles, Responsibility: Atmospheric Scientists




Atmospheric science is the study of the atmosphere—the blanket of air covering the Earth. Atmospheric scientists, commonly called meteorologists, study the atmosphere’s physical characteristics, motions, and processes, and the way in which it affects the rest of our environment. The best known application of this knowledge is in forecasting the weather. Aside from predicting the weather, scientists also attempt to identify and interpret climate trends, understand past weather, and analyze today’s weather. However, weather information and meteorological research also are 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, or ozone depletion.

Atmospheric scientists who forecast the weather, known professionally as operational meteorologists, are the largest group of specialists. They study information on air pressure, temperature, humidity, and wind velocity; and apply physical and mathematical relationships to make short-range and long-range weather forecasts. Their data come from weather satellites, weather radars, sensors, and weather 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 both economic and safety reasons, such as the shipping, air transportation, agriculture, fishing, forestry, and utilities industries.

The use of weather balloons, launched a few times a day to measure wind, temperature, and humidity in the upper atmosphere, is currently supplemented by sophisticated atmospheric monitoring equipment that transmits data as frequently as every few minutes. Doppler radar, for example, can detect airflow patterns in violent storm systems—allowing forecasters to better predict tornadoes and other hazardous winds, and to monitor the storms’ direction and intensity. Combined radar and satellite observations allow meteorologists to predict flash floods.

Some atmospheric scientists work 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 factors affecting the formation of clouds, rain, and snow; the dispersal of air pollutants over urban areas; and other weather phenomena, such as the mechanics of severe storms. Synoptic meteorologists develop new tools for weather forecasting using computers and sophisticated mathematical models of atmospheric activity. Climatologists study climactic variations spanning hundreds or even millions of years. They also may collect, analyze, and interpret past records of wind, rainfall, sunshine, and temperature in specific areas or regions. Their studies are used to design buildings, plan heating and cooling systems, and aid in effective land use and agricultural production. 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.