Atmospheric Scientist

Study the atmosphere's physical characteristics, motions, and processes, and the way in which these factors affect the rest of our environment.

Interest Area: 
Thinking
Average Yearly Pay: 
$81290
Education Needed: 
Bachelor's Degree
Employment: 
Growing as Fast as the Average
Job Growth: 
15%
Job Prospects: 
Competitive

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Job Duties: 

Atmospheric scientists typically do the following:

  • Measure temperature, air pressure, and other properties of the atmosphere
  • Develop and use computer models that analyze data about the atmosphere (also called meteorological data)
  • Produce weather maps and graphics
  • Report current weather conditions
  • Prepare long- and short-term weather forecasts using sophisticated computer and mathematical models, satellite and radar data
  • Issue warnings to protect life and property during severe weather, such as hurricanes, tornadoes, and flash floods
  • Career Overview

    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.

    Work environment. Weather stations are found everywhere—at airports, in or near cities, and in isolated and remote areas. In addition to analyzing information in offices, some atmospheric scientists also spend time observing weather conditions on the ground or 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. 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; fieldwork and travel may be common for these workers.

    Most weather stations operate around the clock, 7 days a week, as weather conditions can change rapidly and timely information is essential, particularly during periods of severe weather. As a result, jobs in such facilities involve night, weekend, and holiday work, often with rotating shifts. During weather emergencies, such as hurricanes, meteorologists may work extended hours. Operational meteorologists also are often under pressure to meet forecast deadlines. Meteorologists and research scientists who are not involved in forecasting tasks work regular hours, usually in offices.

    Training, Qualifications, and Advancement

    A bachelor's degree in meteorology or atmospheric science, or in a closely related field with courses in meteorology, usually is the minimum educational requirement for an entry-level position. A master's degree is necessary for some positions, and a Ph.D. degree is required for most basic research positions.

    Education and training. 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.

    Certification and advancement. 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

    Atmospheric scientists held about 9,400 jobs in 2008. This does not include individuals employed in college and university departments of meteorology or atmospheric science, physics, earth science, or geophysics; these individuals are classified as college or university faculty, rather than atmospheric scientists.

    The Federal Government was the largest single employer of atmospheric scientists, accounting for about 34 percent of employment. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) employed most Federal meteorologists in National Weather Service stations throughout the Nation; the remainder of NOAA's meteorologists worked mainly in research and development or management. The U.S. Department of Defense employed several hundred civilian meteorologists. In addition to civilian meteorologists, hundreds of Armed Forces members are involved in forecasting and other meteorological work. Others worked for professional, scientific, and technical services firms, including private weather consulting services, and in radio and television broadcasting.

    Job Outlook

    Employment is expected to increase faster than average. Applicants face keen competition; those with graduate degrees should enjoy better prospects than those with only a bachelor’s degree.

    Employment change. Employment of atmospheric scientists is projected to grow 15 percent over the 2008-18 decade, faster than the average for all occupations. Most new jobs are expected to arise in private industry. 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 climate-sensitive industries. Farmers, commodity investors, insurance companies, utilities, and 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 climate-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, but related employment increases are expected to be small. Efforts toward making and improving global weather observations also could have a positive impact on employment.

    Job prospects. Atmospheric scientists will face keen competition, as the number of graduates from college and university atmospheric sciences programs is expected to exceed the number of openings in the field. Although overall opportunities will be limited, the best prospects will be in private industry. Few opportunities are expected in government as atmospheric scientists will only need to be hired to replace workers who retire or leave the field. Openings for academic researchers will be limited due to the small number of positions. Workers with graduate degrees should enjoy better prospects than those with only a bachelor’s degree.

    Earnings

    Median annual wages of atmospheric scientists in May 2008 were $81,290. The middle 50 percent earned between $55,140 and $101,340. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $38,990, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $127,100.

    The average salary for meteorologists employed by the Federal Government was $93,661 in March 2009.

    For More Information

    General information about careers in atmospheric sciences is provided by the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research at: http://www.ucar.edu/student_recruiting

    Information about careers in meteorology and a listing of colleges and universities offering meteorology programs is provided by the American Meteorological Society at: http://www.ametsoc.org

    Information about meteorology careers in the Federal Government can be obtained from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration at: http://www.careers.noaa.gov

    Information on obtaining a position as a meteorologist with the Federal Government is available from the Office of Personnel Management through USAJOBS, the Federal Government's official employment information system. This resource for locating and applying for job opportunities can be accessed at http://www.usajobs.opm.gov or through an interactive voice response telephone system at (703) 724-1850 or TDD (978) 461-8404. These numbers are not toll free, so charges may result.

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