Atmospheric Scientists

Significant Points

  • The Federal Government employs more than 1 out of 3 meteorologists and is their largest employer.
  • A bachelor’s degree in meteorology, or in a closely related field with courses in meteorology, is the minimum educational requirement; a master’s degree is necessary for some positions, and a Ph.D. is required for most research positions.
  • Applicants may face competition if the number of degrees awarded in atmospheric science and meteorology remain near current levels.

Nature of the Work [About this section]  Index

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 it affects the rest of our environment. The best known application of this knowledge is in forecasting the weather. However, weather information and meteorological research are also applied in air-pollution control, agriculture, air and sea transportation, defense, and the study of trends in Earth’s climate such as global warming, droughts, or ozone depletion.

Atmospheric scientists who forecast the weather, known professionally as operational meteorologists, is 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- and long-range weather forecasts. Their data come from weather satellites, weather radars, and sensors and observers 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. These forecasts inform not only the general public, but also those who need accurate weather information for both economic and safety reasons, as in the shipping, air transportation, agriculture, fishing, 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, as well as to monitor the storm’s 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, snow, and other weather phenomena, such as severe storms. Synoptic meteorologists develop new tools for weather forecasting using computers and sophisticated mathematical models. Climatologists 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. Other research meteorologists examine the most effective ways to control or diminish air pollution.

Working Conditions [About this section]  Index

Most weather stations operate around the clock 7 days a week. Jobs in such facilities usually involve night, weekend, and holiday work, often with rotating shifts. During weather emergencies, such as hurricanes, operational meteorologists may work overtime. Operational meteorologists are also often under pressure to meet forecast deadlines. Weather stations are found all over—at airports, in or near cities, and in isolated and remote areas. Some atmospheric scientists also spend time observing weather conditions and collecting data from aircraft. Weather forecasters who work for radio or television stations broadcast their reports from station studios, and may work evenings and weekends. Meteorologists in smaller weather offices often work alone; in larger ones, they work as part of a team. Meteorologists not involved in forecasting tasks work regular hours, usually in offices. Those who work for private consulting firms or for companies analyzing and monitoring emissions to improve air quality usually work with other scientists or engineers.

Employment [About this section]  Index

Atmospheric scientists held about 8,400 jobs in 1998. The Federal Government is the largest single employer of civilian meteorologists. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) employed about 2,600 meteorologists; nearly 90 percent worked in the National Weather Service at stations throughout the Nation. The remainder of NOAA’s meteorologists worked mainly in research and development or management. The Department of Defense employed about 280 civilian meteorologists. Others worked for research and testing services, private weather consulting services, and computer and data processing services.

Although several hundred people teach atmospheric science and related courses in college and university departments of meteorology or atmospheric science, physics, earth science, and geophysics, these individuals are classified as college or university faculty, rather than atmospheric scientists. (See the statement on college and university faculty elsewhere in the Handbook.)

In addition to civilian meteorologists, hundreds of Armed Forces members are involved in forecasting and other meteorological work. (See the statement on job opportunities in the Armed Forces elsewhere in the Handbook.)

Training, Other Qualifications, & Advancement [About this section]  Index

A bachelor’s degree in meteorology or atmospheric science, or in a closely related field with courses in meteorology, is usually the minimum educational requirement for an entry-level position as an atmospheric scientist.

The preferred educational requirement for entry-level meteorologists in the Federal Government is a bachelor’s degree—not necessarily in meteorology—but with at least 24 semester hours of meteorology courses, including 6 hours in the analysis and prediction of weather systems and 2 hours of remote sensing of the atmosphere or instrumentation. Other required courses include differential and integral calculus, differential equations, 6 hours of college physics, and at least 9 hours of courses appropriate for a physical science major—such as statistics, computer science, chemistry, physical oceanography, or physical climatology. Sometimes, a combination of experience and education may be substituted for a degree.

Although positions in operational meteorology are available for those with only a bachelor’s degree, obtaining a master’s degree enhances employment opportunities and advancement potential. A master’s degree is usually necessary for conducting applied research and development, and a Ph.D. is required for most basic research positions. Students planning on a career in research and development need not necessarily 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. 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. Many programs combine the study of meteorology with another field, such as agriculture, 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. Students who wish to become broadcast meteorologists for radio or television stations should develop excellent communication skills through courses in speech, journalism, and related fields. Those interested in air quality work should take courses in chemistry and supplement their technical training with coursework in policy or government affairs.

Beginning atmospheric scientists often do routine data collection, computation, or analysis, and some basic forecasting. Entry-level operational meteorologists in the Federal Government are usually 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 a permanent duty station. 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.

The American Meteorological Society offers professional certification of consulting meteorologists, administered by a Board of Certified Consulting Meteorologists. Applicants must meet formal education requirements (though not necessarily have a college degree), 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.

Job Outlook [About this section]  Index

Employment of atmospheric scientists is projected to increase about as fast as the average for all occupations through 2008, and prospective atmospheric scientists may face competition if the number of degrees awarded in atmospheric science and meteorology remain near current levels. The National Weather Service (NWS) has completed an extensive modernization of its weather forecasting equipment and finished all hiring of meteorologists needed to staff the upgraded stations. The NWS has no plans to increase the number of weather stations or the number of meteorologists in existing stations for many years. Employment of meteorologists in other Federal agencies is expected to decline slightly as the Federal Government attempts to balance its budget.

On the other hand, job opportunities for atmospheric scientists in private industry are expected to be better than in the Federal Government over the 1998-2008 period. As research leads to continuing improvements in weather forecasting, demand should grow for private weather consulting firms to provide more detailed information than has formerly been available, especially to weather-sensitive industries. Farmers, commodity investors, radio and television stations, and utilities, transportation, and construction firms can greatly benefit from additional weather information more closely targeted to their needs than the general information provided by the National Weather Service. Additionally, research on seasonal and other long-range forecasting is yielding positive results, which should spur demand for more atmospheric scientists to interpret these forecasts and advise weather-sensitive industries. However, because many customers for private weather services are in industries sensitive to fluctuations in the economy, the sales and growth of private weather services depend on the health of the economy.

There will continue to be demand for atmospheric scientists to analyze and monitor the dispersion of pollutants into the air to ensure compliance with Federal environmental regulations outlined in the Clean Air Act of 1990, but employment increases are expected to be small.

Earnings [About this section]  Index

Median annual earnings of atmospheric scientists in 1998 were $54,430. The middle 50 percent earned between $38,570 and $75,260. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $27,250 and the highest 10 percent earned more than $87,760.

The average salary for meteorologists in nonsupervisory, supervisory, and managerial positions employed by the Federal Government was about $62,500 in 1999. Meteorologists in the Federal Government with a bachelor’s degree and no experience received a starting salary of $20,600 or $25,500, depending on their college grades. Those with a master’s degree could start at $25,500 or $31,200; those with the Ph.D., at $37,700 or $45,200. Beginning salaries for all degree levels are slightly higher in selected areas of the country where the prevailing local pay level is higher.

Related Occupations [About this section]  Index

Workers in other occupations concerned with the physical environment include oceanographers, geologists and geophysicists,hydrologists, physicists, mathematicians, and civil, chemical, and environmental engineers.

Sources of Additional Information [About this section]  Index

Disclaimer: Links to other Internet sites are provided for your convenience and do not constitute an endorsement.

Information about careers in meteorology is available from:

Information on acquiring a job as a meteorologist with the Federal Government may be obtained from the Office of Personnel Management through a telephone-based system. Consult your telephone directory under U.S. Government for a local number or call (912) 757-3000 (TDD 912 744-2299). That number is not toll-free and charges may result. Information also is available from their Internet site: http://www.usajobs.opm.gov

O*NET Codes: 24108 About the O*NET codes

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