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Meteorology is the study of the atmosphere, the air that covers the earth. 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 also are applied in air-pollution control, agriculture, air and sea transportation, defense, and the study of trends in the earth's climate such as global warming or ozone depletion.
Meteorologists 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 they apply physical and mathematical relationships to make short- and long-range weather forecasts. Their data come from weather satellites, weather radar, and remote 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, aviation, agriculture, fishing, and utilities industries.
The use of weather balloons, launched several times a day, to measure wind, temperature, and humidity in the upper atmosphere, is supplemented by far more sophisticated weather equipment which transmits data as frequently as every few minutes. Doppler radar, for example, can detect rotational patterns in violent storm systems, allowing forecasters to better predict thunderstorms, tornadoes, flash floods, as well as their direction and intensity.
Some meteorologists 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 formation of clouds, rain, snow, and other weather phenomena, such as severe storms. 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 and to plan heating and cooling systems, to aid in effective land use, and in agricultural production. Other research meteorologists examine the most effective ways to control or diminish air pollution or improve weather forecasting using mathematical models.
Jobs in weather stations, most of which operate around the clock 7 days a week, often involve night, weekend, and holiday work and rotating shifts. During times of 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 the country: At airports, in or near cities, and in isolated and remote areas. Some meteorologists also spend time observing weather conditions and collecting data from aircraft. Meteorologists in smaller weather offices often work alone; in larger ones, they work as part of a team. Meteorologists not doing forecasting work regular hours, usually in offices. Those who work for private consulting firms or for companies that analyze and monitor emissions to improve air quality often work with other science or engineering professionals.
Meteorologists held about 6,600 jobs in 1994. The largest employer of civilian meteorologists is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which employs about 2,700 meteorologists. Nearly 90 percent of NOAA's meteorologists work in the National Weather Service at stations in all parts of the United States. The remainder of NOAA's meteorologists work mainly in research or in program management. The Department of Defense employs about 280 civilian meteorologists. Others work for private weather consultants, research and testing services, and computer and data processing services.
Although hundreds of people teach meteorology 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 meteorologists. (See the statement on college and university faculty elsewhere in the Handbook.)
In addition to civilian meteorologists, thousands of members of the Armed Forces do forecasting and other meteorological work.
A bachelor's degree with a major in meteorology or a closely related field with coursework in meteorology is the usual minimum requirement for a beginning job as a meteorologist.
The preferred educational requirement for entry level meteorologists in the Federal Government is a bachelor's degree-not necessarily in meteorology-with at least 20 semester hours of meteorology courses, including 6 hours in weather analysis and forecasting and 6 hours in dynamic meteorology. In addition to meteorology coursework, differential and integral calculus and 6 hours of college physics are required. These requirements have recently been upgraded to include coursework in computer science and additional coursework appropriate for a physical science ajor, such as statistics, 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 graduate degree enhances advancement potential. A master's degree is usually necessary for conducting research and development, and a Ph.D. may be required for some research positions. Students who plan a career in research and development need not necessarily major in meteorology as an undergraduate. In fact, a bachelor's degree in mathematics, physics, or engineering is excellent preparation for graduate study in meteorology.
Because meteorology 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, and a strong background in mathematics and physics are important to prospective employers. Many programs combine the study of meteorology with another field, such as agriculture, engineering, or physics. For example, hydrometeorology is the blending of hydrology (the science of the earth's water) and meteorology, and is the field concerned with the effect of precipitation on the hydrologic cycle and the environment.
Beginning meteorologists often do routine data collection, computation, or analysis and some basic forecasting. Entry level meteorologists in the Federal Government are usually placed in intern positions for training and experience. Experienced meteorologists may advance to various supervisory or administrative jobs, or may handle more complex forecasting jobs. Increasing numbers of meteorologists establish their own weather consulting services.
Persons seeking employment as meteorologists are likely to face competition because the National Weather Service-the largest single employer of meteorologists-has curtailed hiring following an extensive modernization of its weather forecasting equipment. Employment of meteorologists is expected change or grow more slowly than the average for all occupations through the year 2005. Employment of meteorologists in other parts of the Federal Government is not expected to increase either. Some employment growth is anticipated in private industry as the use of private weather forecasting and meteorological services by farmers, commodity investors, utilities, transportation and construction firms, and radio and television stations increases. For people in these and other areas, additional weather information, which is more closely targeted to their needs than the more general information provided by the National Weather Service, can yield significant benefits. 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 meteorologists to analyze and monitor the dispersion of pollutants into the air to ensure compliance with the Federal environmental regulations outlined in the Clean Air Act of 1990.
According to an American Meteorological Society survey, the average salary for meteorologists in entry level positions with a bachelor's degree was about $22,000 in 1992; for those with a master's degree, $27,000; and for those with a Ph.D. degree, $37,000.
The average salary for meteorologists in nonsupervisory, supervisory, and managerial positions employed by the Federal Government was $49,100 in 1994. In 1995, meteorologists in the Federal Government with a bachelor's degree and no experience received a starting salary of about $18,700 or $23,200 a year, depending on their college grades. Those with a master's degree could start at $23,200 or $28,300; those with the Ph.D. degree, at $34,300 or $41,100. Beginning salaries for all degree levels were slightly higher in selected areas of the country where the prevailing local pay level was higher.
Workers in other occupations concerned with the physical environment include oceanographers; geologists and geophysicists; hydrologists; civil, chemical, and environmental engineers; physicists; and mathematicians.
Information on career opportunities in meteorology is available from:
American Meteorological Society, 45 Beacon St., Boston, MA 02108.
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Human Resources Management Office, 1315 East West Hwy., Route Code OA/22, Silver Spring, MD 20910.
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