Atmospheric science is really just coming into its own in the 21st century, as high-powered computers, software and other technological developments open up new horizons. Atmospheric science involves studying weather, climate and atmospheric phenomena. The field is broken down into two main areas: meteorology and climatology. Meteorologists study and predict the weather. Climatologists research historical weather patterns to analyze and forecast long-term weather patterns or climate changes. Although they use different tools and theoretical frameworks in their work, they are working with largely the same data, so the difference between meteorologists and climatologists is mainly perspective.
A meteorologist studies and models the atmospheric processes that lead to specific weather conditions. Your local TV and radio weathermen -- and weatherwomen -- are broadcast meteorologists, but some meteorologists also specialize in forensics, and others focus on scientific research to improve our understanding and modeling of weather phenomena. Almost all forensic and research meteorologists will have earned graduate degrees, and many will have Ph.D.s. Most broadcast meteorologists have at least a bachelor's degree in atmospheric science or meteorology, but it is not required, and the fact that some have very little academic background in meteorology can occasionally become a bone of contention.
Climatologists study historical weather patterns to help them understand and forecast long-term weather patterns. Much of the work of climatologists involves creating software models to predict amounts of rainfall or the severity of tornadoes in the future. Climate studies are involved in modern building design, and can help authorities in planning efficient land and agricultural use. Climate change is a primary area of study for climatologists. Climatologists often work in interdisciplinary teams with oceanographers, physicists and other atmospheric scientists.
The subject of climate change has provoked a somewhat surprising disagreement between climatologists and a number of meteorologists. It boils down to the fact that climatologists almost universally support the idea of man-made global warming causing some degree of climate change, and quite a few meteorologists do not. A 2010 article in "The New York Times" suggests that professional jealousy could play a role: Most climatologists have master's and doctoral degrees, and most broadcast meteorologists just have bachelor's degrees. The difference in scale and complexity of the models used to predict weather versus climate change is another possible explanation for the divergence in opinions.
Salaries and Job Prospects
Weathermen make pretty good money; broadcast meteorologists earned an annual median salary of $80,250 as of May 2010, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Climatologists and other research atmospheric scientists earn a little more by virtue of their greater education, and check in at an annual median salary of $87,130. Job prospects are decent for atmospheric scientists, with 11 percent job growth expected through 2020, slightly less than the average for all occupations of 14 percent.
Clayton Browne has been writing professionally since 1994. He has written and edited everything from science fiction to semiconductor patents to dissertations in linguistics, having worked for Holt, Rinehart & Winston, Steck-Vaughn and The Psychological Corp. Browne has a Master of Science in linguistic anthropology from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.