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Meteorology, Climatology, and Atmospheric Science

Meteorology, Climatology, and Atmospheric Science

Throughout the ages, people have observed clouds, winds, and precipitation, trying to discern patterns and make predictions: when it is best to plant and harvest; whether it is safe to set out on a sea voyage; and much more. We now face complex weather and atmosphere-related challenges that will have a major impact on our civilization and the ecosystem.

Several different scientific disciplines use chemical principles to help us better understand weather, the atmosphere, and climate. These are meteorology, climatology, and atmospheric science. Meteorology is the study of the atmosphere, atmospheric phenomena, and atmospheric effects on earth’s weather.

Meteorologists seek to understand and predict the weather in the short term, which can save lives and benefit the economy. Weather forecasts (see the figure below) are the result of thousands of measurements of air pressure, temperature, and the like, which are compiled, modeled, and analyzed in weather centers worldwide.

A weather map of the United States is shown which points out areas of high and low pressure with the letters H in blue and L in red. Curved lines in grey, orange, blue, and red are shown. The orange lines are segmented. The red and blue lines have small red or blue semi-circles and triangles attached along their lengths. In dashed white lines, latitude and longitude are indicated. Underlined three and four digit numbers also appear across the map.

Meteorologists use weather maps to describe and predict weather. Regions of high (H) and low (L) pressure have large effects on weather conditions. The gray lines represent locations of constant pressure known as isobars. (credit: modification of work by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

In terms of weather, low-pressure systems occur when the earth’s surface atmospheric pressure is lower than the surrounding environment: Moist air rises and condenses, producing clouds. Movement of moisture and air within various weather fronts instigates most weather events.

The atmosphere is the gaseous layer that surrounds a planet. Earth’s atmosphere, which is roughly 100–125 km thick, consists of roughly 78.1% nitrogen and 21.0% oxygen, and can be subdivided further into the regions shown in the figure below: the exosphere (furthest from earth, > 700 km above sea level), the thermosphere (80–700 km), the mesosphere (50–80 km), the stratosphere (second lowest level of our atmosphere, 12–50 km above sea level), and the troposphere (up to 12 km above sea level, roughly 80% of the earth’s atmosphere by mass and the layer where most weather events originate). As you go higher in the troposphere, air density and temperature both decrease.

This diagram shows half of a two dimensional view of the earth in blue and green. A narrow white layer, labeled “troposphere 0 dash 12 k m” covers this hemisphere. This layer is also labeled “layer where most weather events originate.” Next, a thicker light blue layer labeled “Stratosphere 12 dash 50 k m” is shown. This is followed by a slightly thinner layer also in light blue labeled “Mesosphere 50 dash 80 k m.” Following this layer is a relatively thick light blue layer labeled “Thermosphere 80 dash 700 k m.” A blue layer appears that covers the rightmost two thirds of the diagram. This region gradually darkens from a lighter blue at the left to a dark blue at the right. This region of the diagram is labeled “exosphere greater than 700 k m.”

Earth’s atmosphere has five layers: the troposphere, the stratosphere, the mesosphere, the thermosphere, and the exosphere.

Climatology is the study of the climate, averaged weather conditions over long time periods, using atmospheric data. However, climatologists study patterns and effects that occur over decades, centuries, and millennia, rather than shorter time frames of hours, days, and weeks like meteorologists. Atmospheric science is an even broader field, combining meteorology, climatology, and other scientific disciplines that study the atmosphere.

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