Atmospheric science is the study of the atmosphere-the blanket of air covering the Earth. Hence, atmospheric scientists, commonly called meteorologists, study the atmosphere’s physical characteristics, motions, and processes, and the way these factors affect the environment. The best known application of this knowledge is forecasting the weather. These scientists also identify and interpret climate trends, understand past weather, and analyze today’s weather. Weather information and meteorological research are applied in air-pollution, agriculture, forestry, air and sea transportation, defense, and the study of possible trends in the earth’s climate, such as global warming and ozone depletion.

While meteorologists study and forecast weather patterns in the shorter term, climatologists study seasonal variations in weather over months, years and even centuries. This is done through the collection, analysis and interpretation of past records of wind, rainfall, sunshine, and temperature in specific regions.

Some atmospheric scientists work exclusively in research. They study the atmosphere’s chemical and physical properties, the transmission of light, sound and radio waves, and the transfer of energy in the atmosphere.

Another specialty within this profession is the environmental meteorologists who study problems associated with pollution and shortages of fresh water.

Education and Certifications

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

The preferred educational requirement for a meteorologist in the Federal Government is a bachelor’s degree with a least 24 semester hours of meteorology/atmospheric science course. This should include 5 hours in 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 differential equations, 5 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 (study of upper atmosphere), advanced thermodynamics, advanced electricity and magnetism, light and optics, and computer science.

Due to the array of specialties within this profession, the student should take those courses that are most relevant to his/her desired area of specialization. For example, those interested in pursuing a career in air quality should take courses in chemistry with supplemental training in government policy and affairs pertaining to this subject.

There are certifications to be earned in this branch of physical science. There is the American Meteorological Society (AMS) which is the nation’s premier professional organization. The AMS has two respected certification programs:

  • Certified Broadcast Meteorologist (CBM)-  established to raise the professional standard in broadcast meteorology and ensure that specific educational and experience criteria are established
  • Certified Consulting Meteorologist (CCM)-  fosters the establishment of professional competency in the area of consulting meteorology


According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median annual salary was $88,140 in May, 2013. As of 2012, there were a total of 11,100 atmospheric scientists, including meteorologists, employed in the U.S.. The BLS projects the job growth to be 10% or 1,100 jobs added/changed through 2022. The U.S. government  is the largest single employer of civilian meteorologists, accounting for approximately 34%. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) employs the most meteorologists. This federal agency is involved in anything weather related from environmental support for U.S. ports to hurricane readiness.


Judging from the labor statistics, the most job opportunities lie in the government. This could be an asset for the potential atmospheric scientist as most government agencies are noted for their career stability and benefits. A statistic published in 2011 in USA Today stated that .55% of federal employees were fired over 12 months ending September 2010. That compares to 3% for the private sector. The same report stated that after a few years as a federal employee- job security is 100%!