Atmospheric scientists study the weather and climate, and examine how those conditions affect human activity and the earth in general. They may develop forecasts, collect and compile data from the field, assist in the development of new data collection instruments, or advise clients on risks or opportunities caused by weather events and climate change.
Atmospheric scientists typically do the following:
- Measure temperature, atmospheric pressure, humidity, wind speed, dew point, and other properties of the atmosphere
- Use computer models that analyze data about the atmosphere (also called meteorological data)
- Write computer programs to support their modeling efforts
- Conduct research to improve understanding of weather phenomena
- Generate weather graphics for users
- Report current weather conditions
- Prepare long- and short-term weather forecasts by using computers, mathematical models, satellites, radar, and local station data
- Plan, organize, and participate in outreach programs aimed at educating the public about weather
- Issue warnings to protect life and property when threatened by severe weather, such as hurricanes, tornadoes, and flash floods
Atmospheric scientists use highly developed instruments and computer programs to do their jobs. For example, they use weather balloons, radar systems, and satellites to monitor the weather and collect data. The data they collect and analyze are critical to understanding global warming and other issues. Atmospheric scientists also use graphics software to illustrate their forecasts and reports in order to advise their clients or the public.
Many atmospheric scientists work with other geoscientists or even social scientists to help solve problems in areas such as commerce, energy, transportation, agriculture, and the environment. For example, some atmospheric scientists work closely with hydrologists and government organizations to study the impact climate change may have on water supplies and to manage water resources.
The following are examples of types of atmospheric scientists:
Atmospheric chemists study atmospheric components, reactions, measurement techniques, and processes. They study climates and gases, chemical reactions that occur in clouds, and ultraviolet radiation.
Atmospheric physicists and dynamists study the physical movements and interactions that occur in the atmosphere. They may study how terrain affects weather and causes turbulence, how solar phenomena affect satellite communications and navigation, or they may study the causes and effects of lightning.
Broadcast meteorologists give forecasts to the general public through television, radio, and the Internet. They use graphics software to develop maps and charts that explain their forecasts. Not all weather broadcasters seen on television are meteorologists or atmospheric scientists; reporters, correspondents, and broadcast news analysts present weather conditions and forecasts, but do not have specific training in meteorology.
Climatologists study historical weather patterns to interpret long-term weather patterns or shifts in climate by using primarily statistical methods. Global climate change is the main area of study for climatologists. Paleoclimatology is a specialization within this field. Climatologists who specialize in paleoclimatology may take samples from icebergs and other sources to gather data on the atmosphere that cover very long periods of time.
Climate scientists work on the theoretical foundations and the modeling of climate change. The nature of this work requires the use of complex mathematical models to try to forecast many months, and sometimes longer, into the future. Their studies can be used to design buildings, plan heating and cooling systems, and aid in efficient land use and agricultural production.
Forensic meteorologists use historical weather data to reconstruct the weather conditions for a specific location and time. They investigate what role weather played in unusual events such as traffic accidents and fires. Forensic meteorologists may be called as experts to testify in court.
Research meteorologists develop new methods of data collection, observation, and forecasting. They also conduct studies to improve basic understandings of climate, weather, and other aspects of the atmosphere. For example, some research meteorologists study severe weather patterns that produce hurricanes and tornadoes to understand why cyclones form and to develop better ways of predicting them. Others focus on environmental problems, such as air pollution. Research meteorologists often work with scientists in other fields. For example, they may work with computer scientists to develop new forecasting software or with oceanographers to study interactions between the ocean and the atmosphere. They may also work with engineers to develop new instruments so that they can collect the data they need.
Weather forecasters use computer and mathematical models to produce weather reports and short-term forecasts that can range from a few minutes to more than a week. They develop forecasts for the general public and for specific customers such as airports, water transportation, shippers, farmers, utility companies, insurance companies, and other businesses. For example, they may provide forecasts to power suppliers so that the suppliers can plan for events, such as heat waves, that would cause a change in electricity demand. They also issue advanced warnings for potentially severe weather, such as blizzards and hurricanes. Some forecasters prepare long-range outlooks to predict whether temperatures and precipitation levels will be above or below average in a particular month or season. These workers become familiar with general weather patterns, atmospheric predictability, precipitation, and forecasting techniques.
Some people with an atmospheric science background may become professors or postsecondary teachers.
Atmospheric scientists, including meteorologists held about 10,000 jobs in 2018. The largest employers of atmospheric scientists, including meteorologists were as follows:
|Federal government, excluding postal service||31%|
|Research and development in the physical, engineering, and life sciences||16|
|Colleges, universities, and professional schools; state||13|
|Management, scientific, and technical consulting services||5|
In the federal government, most atmospheric scientists work as weather forecasters with the National Weather Service of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in weather stations throughout the United States—at airports, in or near cities, and in isolated and remote areas. In smaller stations, they often work alone; in larger ones, they work as part of a team. In addition, hundreds of members of the Armed Forces are involved in atmospheric science.
Atmospheric scientists involved in professional, scientific, and technical services or research often work in offices and laboratories. Some may travel frequently to collect data in the field and to observe weather events, such as tornadoes, up close. They also observe actual weather conditions from the ground or from an aircraft.
Broadcast meteorologists present their reports to the general public from television and radio studios. They also may broadcast from outdoor locations to tell audiences about current weather conditions.
Atmospheric scientists who work in private industry may have to travel to meet with clients or to gather information in the field. For example, forensic meteorologists may need to collect information from the scene of an accident as part of their investigation.
Most atmospheric scientists work full time. Weather conditions can change quickly, so weather forecasters need to continuously monitor conditions. Many, especially entry-level staff at field stations, work rotating shifts to ensure staff coverage for all 24 hours in a day. For this reason, they may work nights, weekends, and holidays. In addition, they may work extended hours during severe weather, such as hurricanes. Some work more than 40 hours per week. Other atmospheric scientists have a standard workweek, although researchers may work nights and weekends on particular projects.
Atmospheric scientists need a bachelor’s degree in meteorology or a closely related earth sciences field for most positions. For research positions, atmospheric scientists need a master’s degree at minimum, but usually will need a Ph.D.
Atmospheric scientists typically need a bachelor’s degree, either in atmospheric science or a related scientific field that specifically studies atmospheric qualities and phenomena. Bachelor’s degrees in physics, chemistry, or geology are usually adequate, alternative preparation for those who wish to enter the atmospheric sciences. Prospective meteorologists usually take courses outside of the typical atmospheric sciences field.
Course requirements, in addition to courses in meteorology and atmospheric science, usually include advanced courses in physics and mathematics. Classes in computer programming are important because many atmospheric scientists have to write and edit the computer software programs that produce forecasts. Coursework in remote sensing of the environment, by radar or satellite, may be required.
Atmospheric scientists who work in research must at least have a master’s degree, but will usually need a Ph.D. in atmospheric science or a related field. Most graduate programs do not require prospective students to have a bachelor’s degree in atmospheric science; a bachelor’s degree in mathematics, physics, or engineering is excellent preparation for graduate study in atmospheric science. In addition to advanced meteorological coursework, graduate students take courses in other disciplines, such as oceanography and geophysics.
Analytical skills. Atmospheric scientists must be able to focus for many hours, working with computer models and massive amounts of data to prepare analyses on their findings.
Communication skills. Atmospheric scientists need to be able to write and speak clearly so that their knowledge about the weather can be used effectively by communities and individuals.
Critical-thinking skills. Atmospheric scientists need to be able to analyze the results of their computer models and forecasts to determine the most likely outcome.
Math skills. Atmospheric scientists use calculus, statistics, and other advanced topics in mathematics to develop models used to forecast the weather. They also use mathematical calculations to study the relationship between properties of the atmosphere, such as how changes in air pressure may affect air temperature.
Atmospheric scientists and meteorologists who find employment in the National Weather Service will need to take training when they begin employment to be able to use equipment needed to issue warnings of severe weather.
The National Weather Service offers opportunities for students through internship, fellowship, volunteer, and scholarship programs.
The median annual wage for atmospheric scientists, including meteorologists was $94,110 in May 2018.
The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $50,040, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $142,500.
In May 2018, the median annual wages for atmospheric scientists, including meteorologists in the top industries in which they worked were as follows:
|Federal government, excluding postal service||$104,440|
|Research and development in the physical, engineering, and life sciences||103,460|
|Management, scientific, and technical consulting services||90,860|
|Colleges, universities, and professional schools; state||82,780|
Most atmospheric scientists work full time. Weather conditions can change quickly, so weather forecasters need to continuously monitor conditions. Many, especially entry-level staff at field stations, work rotating shifts to ensure staff coverage for all 24 hours in a day, and they may work on nights, weekends, and holidays. In addition, they may work extended hours during severe weather, such as hurricanes. Some work more than 40 hours per week. Other atmospheric scientists have a standard workweek, although researchers may work nights and weekends on particular projects.
Atmospheric Scientists, Including Meteorologists
Median annual wages, May 2018
- Atmospheric scientists, including meteorologists
- Physical scientists
- Total, all occupations
Employment of atmospheric scientists, including meteorologists is projected to grow 8 percent from 2018 to 2028, faster than the average for all occupations.
New types of computer models have vastly improved the accuracy of forecasts and allowed atmospheric scientists to tailor forecasts to specific purposes. This should maintain, and perhaps increase, the need for atmospheric scientists working in private industry as businesses demand more specialized weather information.
Businesses increasingly rely on just-in-time delivery to avoid the expenses incurred by traditional inventory management methods. Severe weather can interrupt ground or air transportation and delay inventory delivery. Businesses have begun to maintain forecasting teams around the clock to advise delivery personnel, and this availability helps them stay on schedule. In addition, severe weather patterns have become widely recognizable, and industries have become increasingly concerned about their impact, which will create demand for work in atmospheric science.
As utility companies continue to adopt wind and solar power, they must depend more heavily on weather forecasting to arrange for buying and selling power. This should lead to increased reliance on atmospheric scientists employed in firms in professional, scientific, and technical services to help utilities know when they can sell their excess power, and when they will need to buy.
Prospective atmospheric scientists should expect continued competition because the number of graduates from meteorology programs is expected to exceed the number of job openings requiring only a bachelor’s degree. Workers with a graduate degree should have better prospects than those with a bachelor’s degree only. Prospective atmospheric scientists with knowledge of advanced mathematics also will have better job prospects because of the highly quantitative nature of much of this occupation’s work.
Competition may be strong for research positions at colleges and universities because of the limited number of positions available. In addition, hiring by federal agencies is subject to budget constraints. The best job prospects for meteorologists are expected to be in private industry.
The National Weather Service and the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR) sponsor an online training program called COMET. Completing such coursework may help prospective atmospheric scientists to have better job prospects.
|Occupational Title||SOC Code||Employment, 2018||Projected Employment, 2028||Change, 2018-28||Employment by Industry|
SOURCE: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Employment Projections program
Atmospheric and space scientists
This table shows a list of occupations with job duties that are similar to those of atmospheric scientists, including meteorologists.
|Occupation||Job Duties||Entry-Level Education||Median Annual Pay, May 2018|
Computer programmers write and test code that allows computer applications and software programs to function properly.
Environmental engineers use the principles of engineering, soil science, biology, and chemistry to develop solutions to environmental problems.
Environmental Scientists and Specialists
Environmental scientists and specialists use their knowledge of the natural sciences to protect the environment and human health.
Geoscientists study the physical aspects of the Earth.
Hydrologists study how water moves across and through the Earth’s crust.
Mathematicians and Statisticians
Mathematicians and statisticians analyze data and apply mathematical and statistical techniques to help solve problems.
Physicists and Astronomers
Physicists and astronomers study the ways in which various forms of matter and energy interact.
|Doctoral or professional degree||$119,580|
Postsecondary teachers instruct students in a wide variety of academic and technical subjects beyond the high school level.
|See How to Become One||$78,470|
For more information about atmospheric scientists, including a list of colleges and universities offering atmospheric science programs, visit
For a broad range of information concerning atmospheric scientists within the geosciences perspective, visit
For more information about atmospheric science careers in research, visit
For more information about federal government education requirements for atmospheric science positions, visit
For more information about the COMET training program, visit
To find job openings for atmospheric scientists in the federal government, visit
For more information about federal government atmospheric science careers in the National Weather Service and other agencies within the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, visit
Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Atmospheric Scientists, Including Meteorologists,
on the Internet at https://www.bls.gov/ooh/life-physical-and-social-science/atmospheric-scientists-including-meteorologists.htm (visited ).
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