All About Careers in Meteorology

So you are considering a degree in meteorology or you are not sure what career path to pursue but you have a strong interest in sciences.  The following career guide will give you a broad overview of the exciting field of atmospheric and related sciences.

Meteorology is the science of the atmosphere. It takes its name from the Greek word meteoron - something that happens high in the sky. The ancient Greeks observed clouds, winds, and rain and tried to understand how they are connected to one another. The weather was important in their relatively simple society because it affected the farmers who raised their food and their seamen who sailed the oceans. Today, our complex society and our environment are affected even more seriously by events and changes in the atmosphere. We must address many complicated issues and answer many difficult questions about the behavior of the atmosphere and its effects on the people of our planet.

The American Meteorological Society defines a meteorologist as a person with specialized education "who uses scientific principles to explain, understand, observe, or forecast the earth's atmospheric phenomena and/or how the atmosphere affects the earth and life on the planet." This education usually includes a bachelor's or higher degree from a college or university. Many meteorologists have degrees in physics, chemistry, mathematics, and other fields. The broader term "atmospheric science" often is used to describe the combination of meteorology and other branches of physical science that are involved in studying the atmosphere.

Basically, meteorologists study and predict the weather and climate and its relationship on other environmental processes and the impact on our lives and economy.  Specifically meteorologists can have many different jobs including daily weather forecasting, atmospheric research, teaching, broadcasting and supporting clients through private sector meteorological companies.  Click on each of these categories to learn more specifics.

Weather Forecasting and Warnings
Forecasting has always been at the heart of meteorology, and many young people have been drawn to the profession by the challenge of forecasting a natural event and seeing that forecast affect the lives of thousands of people.  Weather forecasting involves many people in many countries because the systems that bring us our weather are hundreds of miles in extent and move across huge regions of the earth's surface as they grow and change. The weather forecast that you see on your television screen is the end product of a worldwide effort by thousands of meteorologists in the national weather services of many nations.  

Several times each day, weather observers record atmospheric measurements at nearly 10,000 surface weather stations around the world and several thousand ships at sea. They release weather balloons at more than 500 stations to make upper-air measurements. Radar, aircraft and satellites also are used to collect data on what is happening in the atmosphere.

This information is transmitted to world weather centers in the United States, the UK, Russia, and Australia, where computers produce analyses of global weather. National Weather Service (NWS) meteorologists in Washington, D.C., use these data as a starting point to produce guidance forecasts for the United States with sophisticated computer models. These guidance forecasts go to local offices where NWS meteorologists apply their skill and experience to fine-tune the predictions for their regions and specific towns and cities.

The guidance forecasts are also used by private sector meteorologists who provide forecasting services for numerous clients.  Broadcast meteorologists also review the guidance forecasts before preparing their own local and national forecasts on television and radio.  

An example of a private sector forecast service would be short-term, small-scale snow forecasts for city public works managers who need to know how many snowplows to put on the streets in various neighborhoods when a winter storm is on the way. Some private forecasters work for commodities traders who are concerned about the effects of weather on crop production and prices. Others forecast the weather for athletic events such as professional football games and golf tournaments. Private forecasters also keep gas and electric companies informed about impending hot spells or cold waves that will put heavy demands on generating plants and transmission systems.

Weather forecasting includes aviation meteorology. A number of larger airlines, both passenger and cargo haulers, have their own meteorology departments.  However, many aviation forecasting services are provided by the NWS and commercial weather firms. Services provided range from terminal and en route forecasts to automated, computer-generated flight plans.

An extension of forecasting is the provision of warnings for hazardous weather.  These warnings inform the public, governments, and businesses of the dangers of approaching hurricanes, severe thunderstorms, flooding, and winter storms just to mention a few. 

Atmospheric Research
Atmospheric research seeks to answer questions about our understanding of the atmosphere and how it works and impacts us.  For example, atmospheric scientists are working to assess the threat of global warming by collecting and analyzing past and present data on worldwide temperature trends.  Often research meteorologists work closely with scientists in basic physical disciplines such as chemistry, physics, and mathematics as well as with oceanographers, hydrologists, and researchers in other branches of environmental science. Mathematicians and computer scientists help meteorologists design computer models of atmospheric processes. Meteorologists and oceanographers work together to study many important ocean-atmosphere interactions. Research meteorologists work with biologists to try to understand how plants and animals interact with the atmosphere and with political scientists and economists to study the potential effects of global warming on our society.

Meteorological Technology Development and Support
Companies exist which design, manufacture, and market the instrumentation with which atmospheric measurements are made. The instrumentation can range from simple rain gauges and thermometers to computerized, self-contained, automated weather observing stations. At the far leading edge of instrumentation technology are those corporations that design and build weather satellites and Doppler radars. Hand-in-hand with the development of such technologically advanced equipment is, of course, the need for user requirement analyses and the genesis of sophisticated software.

Information Services
Many non-meteorological customers of weather information need tailored products and information to meet their needs.  These customers include media outlets, weather-sensitive businesses, industrial complexes where weather can have an impact (refineries for example), transportation companies, ski resorts, etc.  “Information services” include, among other things, acquiring raw meteorological data pertinent to individual customers, creating easily understood displays of critical weather information, and preparing forecast model output in formats which laymen can effectively utilize.  They produce many of the colorful graphics that you see on television screens and newspaper pages

Meteorologists in this area help planners and contractors locate and design airports, factories and many other kinds of construction projects. They provide climatological information for heating and air conditioning engineers.

Forensic Services
Whenever weather conditions have an impact on legal cases, forensic meteorologists are often called to reconstruct weather conditions which were occurring at the time of the event in question.  The forensic meteorologist will retrieve and analyze archived weather record information (surface observations, radar, satellite, river information, etc.) and reconstruct the weather conditions for the location in question.  Questions such as when did the highest hurricane winds at a particular building occur, was sun in the eyes of the driver or was it cloudy at the time of the accident, or was lightning present when the house caught fire are just a few examples of the types of questions forensic meteorologists answer for their clients.  At times, forensic meteorologists are called to testify as expert witnesses in court cases that involve the weather.

Broadcast Meteorology
Media weathercasting for television, radio, and newspapers is perhaps the highest profile of all careers in meteorology. Broadcast meteorologists produce weather forecasts and related graphics for television.  The broadcast meteorologist is responsible for gathering data, creating a forecast and then developing the graphical representation of their weather analysis for a television broadcast.  A strong theoretical background in meteorology is a necessity, forecast experience is highly useful, and computer competence is helpful.

Obviously, strong communication skills are essential, in terms of both oral and written communication. Broadcast meteorologists are often asked to act as environmental reporters, generating stories on a variety of earth topics. Other parts of the job may include forecast development for the Internet, radio stations, and newspapers. Broadcast meteorologists often represent a strong link to the community and are frequently called upon to bring weather into many local classrooms.

Atmospheric science education at the college and university level has grown tremendously in recent years. In addition to classroom teaching, many university atmospheric scientists direct research that graduate students are performing to earn their degrees. Many institutions offer a major in meteorology or atmospheric science, while others provide atmospheric science courses to supplement related science and engineering fields or as part of a broader educational curriculum. Some colleges and universities offer courses in global change and earth systems science. In high schools and lower grades, atmospheric science usually is taught as part of other natural science courses. Training in meteorology is good preparation for a career as a science teacher at any level.


U.S. Government
Traditionally, the largest employer of meteorologists in this country has been the United States Government. Many work for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which includes the National Weather Service. Some are on active duty with the military services, primarily the Air Force and the Navy, while others are civilian employees of the Department of Defense. Other federal agencies such as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the Department of Energy, and the Department of Agriculture also employ meteorologists.

Federal government agencies conduct atmospheric research.  The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) operates a dozen environmental research laboratories. The more well-known labs include the Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory, which houses the Hurricane Research Division (Miami, Florida); the Climate Diagnostics Center (Boulder, Colorado); and the National Severe Storms Laboratory (Norman, Oklahoma).

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is also involved in a variety of basic research programs at its research facilities: the Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC) in Greenbelt, Maryland; the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia; and the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. The Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) in New York City falls under GSFC and, in cooperation with Columbia University, has been a leader in global change studies.

The National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colorado, also is heavily involved in global change studies, but as one would infer from its title, its research covers a myriad of atmospheric science disciplines. NCAR is sponsored by the National Science Foundation and managed by the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR). UCAR is an international community of scientists, engineers, and technicians dedicated to enhancing understanding of the atmosphere. Among other things, UCAR recruits visiting scientists for various government and military research efforts. It also manages the NOAA Postdoctoral Program in Climate and Global Change. This program pairs recently graduated postdoctorates with host scientists at U.S. institutions. The objective of the program is to help create the next generation of researchers needed for global climate studies.

Private Companies
One of the fastest growing areas for meteorologists is the private sector.  There are increasing employment opportunities for meteorologists in industry, private consulting firms, and research organizations. Many television stations employ professional meteorologists to present weather information to their viewers.

Private sector meteorologists provide a variety of services to industries and other organizations. Some are consulting meteorologists with their own companies and others worked for corporations.  In recent years, a rapidly growing specialty in meteorology has been in the area of information services.  Private companies have developed computerized information systems to provide specialized weather data and displays.

Private sector meteorologists also provide local weather forecasts to many radio and television stations that do not employ their own meteorologists.  Weather forecasting and observing at a few air force bases also is carried out by commercial companies on a contract basis.
Complementing government research work, a number of private organizations, many of them small businesses, perform research. Most of the larger corporations doing research centered around the atmospheric sciences advertise their capabilities in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society professional directory.

University meteorologists teach and work in atmospheric research programs.  In addition to holding a faculty or teaching position, university and college professors often perform research, typically supported by government or foundation grants.
Over 100 universities and colleges in the United States and Canada employ atmospheric scientists. Opportunities span North America from the University of Alaska, Fairbanks to the University of Miami in Florida.  There are even non-continental places in the country for employment such as the University of Hawaii in Honolulu and the University of Puerto Rico in Mayaguez.  Continental U.S. institutions of higher learning with programs in the atmospheric sciences range from large state universities to small colleges to specialized institutions.


Here are some questions you may want to ask yourself if you are considering a career in meteorology:

  • Am I curious about the world around me and why it is the way it is?
  • Would I like to work in a field of science that has many important applications in human affairs such as warning others of hazardous weather or investigating the atmospheric forces that shape our weather and climate?
  • Am I challenged by the idea of applying basic scientific principles to understand the behavior of the atmosphere?
  • Am I intrigued by the concept of using mathematics as a language to describe things that happen in the world around me?
  • Do I enjoy science and math courses?
  • Would I like to work with supercomputers, satellites and other sophisticated research tools?
  • Am I open to change?

There are no right or wrong answers, but all of these questions are closely related to the nature of modern meteorology and the challenges of our changing atmosphere.

In the past, not many women or members of ethnic minority groups have gone into careers in meteorology or other branches of the physical sciences. Today, many rewarding career opportunities are open to anyone who has a good knowledge of meteorology and the ability to use it in atmospheric research or applied meteorology. In meteorology, as in many other professions, employers are actively recruiting women and minorities.