A climatologist studies climate, which is the weather when averaged over the long-term. Climatologists work in a complex field because the climate results from a complicated interaction of oceans, atmosphere, the sun, land, ice masses and even the living things of the Earth. Since climate involves so many systems, the climatologist must rely on a variety of tools to build a picture of climates in the past, present and future. Anything that can offer clues about climate -- from temperature measurements to tree rings -- may serve the climatologist.
“If there is a big gun in the arsenal of modern climatology,” declares The Why Files, a University of Wisconsin website, “it is the climate models that play themselves out on the biggest, baddest computers around.” These big, bad computers are needed because climate doesn’t stand still. It’s an ever-changing, complex set of characteristics, and the computers that climatologists use must be equal to the task. After scientists input climate variables, the supercomputers can create climate simulations. These models help scientists to predict climate change and simulate conditions in the Earth’s past.
The land and ice surfaces of the Earth change over time. Sedimentary deposits trap particulates such as volcanic ash and pollen, preserving them as clues to climates of past. Ice or mud core samples let scientists look at those clues, determining past climate characteristics such as temperature and the chemistry of the atmosphere. Another use of core samples is in perfecting climate models. By comparing the models to the actual record found in the cores, scientists can test the accuracy of their simulations.
Trees are long-lived organisms with a climate story to tell. They tell that story in their rings. Every growing season creates a tree ring in the trunk, and the characteristics of the rings are affected by growing conditions such as temperature and rainfall. Climatologists study the tree rings to understand past weather. Long-lived trees provide weather information that predates human record-keeping. Looking at rings from wood found at archaeological sites can tell tales harking back even further. Not only are tree rings useful for looking back in time, but forward, too. Patterns found in the rings help scientists to predict future conditions.
Climatologists rely on weather stations to supply current data on such variables as temperature, humidity, solar activity and rainfall. The stations are equipped with sensors and can communicate with satellites that then convey the data to climatologists. By tracking such data over time, scientists can determine the extent to which a climate is changing.
Sophie Johnson is a freelance writer and editor of both print and film media. A freelancer for more than 20 years, Johnson has had the opportunity to cover topics ranging from construction to music to celebrity interviews.