What Would I Do?
Almost every single aspect of our lives is affected by the weather. The weather influences our health and well-being. It provides the backdrop and inspiration for art, literature, and music. The weather impacts our economics and politics. It has determined the outcome of wars and has always been at the forefront of advances in technology. You can find meteorologists performing a huge number of tasks and working in vast numbers of companies and agencies.
"If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them." —Henry David Thoreau
Most meteorologists do work in weather forecasting, either in government or the private sector. The need is certainly there. Some weather forecasters work for private consulting firms that take care of the needs of electric utilities, construction companies, airlines, movie and film companies, trucking firms, highway departments, and outdoor sporting events. And this is only a partial list of the weather-sensitive fields that depend on daily weather forecasts.
The National Weather Service provides some of the same, but mainly issues general forecasts for the public along with analysis, which is used by all meteorologists. The forecasters in the National Weather Service are responsible for delivering warnings and advisories. Other government agencies also use weather forecasters. The military has always been a major area for forecasters. Overall the government employs more meteorologists than the private sector, but the private sector grew from about 17 percent of the workforce in 1975 to over a third during the 1990s.
Many television meteorologists today have their AMS Seal of Approval. To qualify for this seal from the American Meteorological Society, you must have advanced education in meteorology as well as on-air experience in forecasting.
Another major and visible area of involvement for meteorologists is broadcasting. Many forecasters are also broadcasters. In fact, more private-sector meteorologists are in broadcasting than any other area. The expansion of television into numerous network and cable operations has opened the door of opportunity to a number of meteorologists. Of course, communication skills are at least as important as forecast skills for on-air meteorologists. Some with excellent broadcast skills may not be meteorologists at all, but a forecaster works with the person and helps prepare the broadcast.
Many meteorologists don't make it through a day without doing some consulting. The telephone rings, and someone needs some past weather information, advice about traveling, information about the long-range forecast, or advice about whether it's a good idea to do some roof work. And the requests go on. A movie crew needs some advice about an outdoor shoot, a tennis match is threatened by some rain, a utility needs to move crews around based on the forecast, a homeowner needs some information about degree days, another needs some historical information because lightning seemed to have hit the well, a police officer is investigating an accident, or somebody wants to invest in oranges and needs to know the odds of a killing frost. And the requests don't stop there!
If you select meteorology as a career, you'll never be lonely. Because the weather influences nearly every aspect of our lives, consulting opportunities are infinite, and many firms have been set up to do just that. The National Weather Service also provides specific information, but the private sector has taken most of the responsibility for tailoring forecasts and information to individual needs.
Braving the Elements
Weather played a huge factor in the D-Day Invasion. On June 5, 1944, the Allied Invasion of the Normandy beaches into Hitler's Europe was postponed because of deteriorating weather and choppy seas. On June 5, President Eisenhower's chief meteorologist predicted that the weather might clear on June 6. So Eisenhower ordered the invasion for June 6. Operation Overlord was a success!
Another major area of meteorological involvement is air quality. General consulting might include some pollution work, but the field is quite technical and includes field work, forecasting, and communications as well as research. In the late 1960s, before the passage of the Clean Air Act, very few meteorologists worked in air quality. But the passage of the act accompanied the establishment of federal and state agencies to monitor and predict air-pollution levels as well as administer the new laws coming on the scene.
During this time there was a tremendous shortage of trained technicians, scientists, and administrators. The federal government established special training and scholarship programs for meteorologists who were considering working in the environmental area. Then, just as government agencies surfaced, private companies came on the scene. By the 1990s, air-quality work became the fourth most common activity of meteorologists, just behind weather forecasting, broadcasting, and general consulting. Meteorologists who work in air quality are responsible for monitoring air-pollution levels, predicting concentrations, and developing computer models to show how the pollution will be dispersed. The concerns of global climate change have only expanded the operations of those involved with pollution monitoring and control.
Weather forecasting is the first love of many meteorologists, but they settle happily into air-quality positions because of the opportunities. In my own experience, I elected to be trained as an air-pollution administrator back in the late 1960s in one of the government-sponsored training programs.
Of course, computer programming has taken off in recent decades. The atmosphere has been reconstructed on these machines, and numerous models have been developed to explain and predict the behavior of the weather. Some of the most influential meteorologists of modern times are scientists who have worked in atmospheric modeling. Those who are involved with this modeling aren't necessarily meteorologists, but they do need to be familiar with atmospheric process. These modelers have a vision of atmospheric behavior and describe the behavior in the language of computers.
The strides made in weather forecasting are largely the result of the success in reconstructing the atmosphere on machines and having the machines carry out operations that human power could not possibly perform. Computer models are constantly being redefined and refined as computers become more effective. Specialists in computer modeling focus on all scales of the atmosphere—small-scale turbulence, thunderstorms, medium-scale fronts, and low-pressure systems, as well as the general circulation patterns that lead to climate studies.
Research and Development
And where would the field of meteorology be without research and development? Most research is carried out by government agencies, or by universities under government-sponsored research grants. Many meteorologists will devote their working lives to the study of all kinds of atmospheric behavior—circulation, cloud dynamics, precipitation, energy transfer, turbulence, radiation, climate change—you name it. Research is done on everything under the sun, including the sun itself. And the effort is performed with the ultimate goal of developing more accurate prediction techniques.
On the subject of universities, teaching is an area that commonly employs meteorologists. Most universities have meteorology courses, and over 100 universities offer degree programs in meteorology. In addition, meteorologists can find their way into earth science teaching programs at the middle- or high-school level. In my own 30 years of teaching, I have found that 30 percent of my students have themselves pursued careers in education.
"I am not a teacher, but an awakener."
Another popular area of work for meteorologists is forensics. This may sound strange, but weather people are often called on to provide historical weather information about legal matters. I have been called to testify in two murder trials when the weather had some influence on the crime. Sometimes the issue revolves around the recollection and reliability of witnesses. Did it really snow that night? Other times the weather can provide a "cover" for a crime, such as a power outage. Or the brutality of the weather will only add to the pain and suffering of the victim, which bears upon the sentence.
Meteorologists are often called on to testify in personal injury cases such as traffic accidents and falls. Was ice on the ground? Could the wind have been strong enough to cause the tree limb to topple onto the car? When did the snow begin and end? In addition, some of this work is related to insurance needs, such as investigating the cause of a roof collapse. The weather has become such an important component in personal injury and damage claims that many meteorological consulting firms specialize in this area.
Other Areas of Specialization
Other areas of specialization for meteorologists include instrument development and remote sensing. These areas have grown in recent decades because of the advances in automated systems, radar, and satellite technology. Also some meteorologists continue to focus on weather modification work. In addition, because of the great interest in climate change, climatology has become a major area of concentration. Important decisions concerning the environment, and energy resources are made based on climate impact. Decision makers need professionals with a solid understanding of meteorology. And because the weather has become a growing business, marketing and managing are two more areas in which meteorologists have begun to specialize. Meteorologists seem to be showing up everywhere.