The Science and Art of Meteorology | National Geographic Society (2022)

Meteorology is the study of the atmosphere, atmospheric phenomena, and atmospheric effects on our weather. The atmosphere is the gaseous layer of the physical environment that surrounds a planet. Earth’s atmosphere is roughly 100 to 125 kilometers (65-75 miles) thick. Gravity keeps the atmosphere from expanding much farther.

Meteorology

is a subdiscipline of the atmospheric sciences, a term that covers all studies of the atmosphere. A sub

discipline

is a specialized field of study within a broader subject or

discipline

. Climatology and aeronomy are also sub

disciplines

of the

atmospheric sciences

. Climatology focuses on how atmospheric changes define and alter the world’s climates.

Aeronomy

is the study of the upper parts of the atmosphere, where unique chemical and physical processes occur.

Meteorology

focuses on the lower parts of the atmosphere, primarily the troposphere, where most

weather

takes place.

Meteorologists use scientific principles to observe, explain, and forecast our

weather

. They often focus on atmospheric research or operational

weather

forecasting

. Research meteorologists cover several sub

disciplines

of

meteorology

to include:

climate

modeling, remote sensing, air quality, atmospheric physics, and

climate

change. They also research the relationship between the atmosphere and Earth’s

climates

, oceans, and biological life.

Forecasters

use that research, along with atmospheric data, to scientifically assess the current state of the atmosphere and make predictions of its future state. Atmospheric conditions both at the Earth's surface and above are measured from a variety of sources:

weather

stations, ships, buoys, aircraft, radar,

weather

balloons, and satellites. This data is transmitted to centers throughout the world that produce computer analyses of global

weather

. The analyses are passed on to national and regional

weather

centers, which feed this data into computers that

model

the future state of the atmosphere. This transfer of information demonstrates how

weather

and the study of it take place in multiple, interconnected ways.

Scales of Meteorology

Weather occurs at different scales of space and time. The four meteorological scales are: microscale, mesoscale, synoptic scale, and global scale. Meteorologists often focus on a specific scale in their work.

Microscale Meteorology
Microscale

meteorology

focuses on

phenomena

that range in size from a few centimeters to a few kilometers, and that have short life spans (less than a day). These

phenomena

affect very small geographic areas, and the temperatures and terrains of those areas.

Microscale meteorologists often study the processes that occur between soil, vegetation, and surface water near ground level. They measure the transfer of heat,

gas

, and liquid between these surfaces.

Microscale

meteorology

often involves the study of chemistry.

Tracking air pollutants is an example of

microscale

meteorology

. MIRAGE-Mexico is a collaboration between meteorologists in the United States and Mexico. The program studies the chemical and physical transformations of

gases

and aerosols in the pollution surrounding Mexico City. MIRAGE-Mexico uses observations from ground stations, aircraft, and

satellites

to track pollutants.

Mesoscale Meteorology
Mesoscale

phenomena

range in size from a few kilometers to roughly 1,000 kilometers (620 miles). Two important

phenomena

are mesoscale convective complexes (MCC) and mesoscale convective systems (MCS). Both are caused by convection, an important meteorological principle.

Convection

is a process of circulation. Warmer, less-dense fluid rises, and colder,

denser

fluid

sinks. The

fluid

that most meteorologists study is air. (Any substance that flows is considered a

fluid

.)

Convection

results in a transfer of energy, heat, and moisture—the basic building blocks of

weather

.

In both an MCC and MCS, a large area of air and moisture is warmed during the middle of the day—when the sun angle is at its highest. As this warm air mass rises into the colder atmosphere, it condenses into clouds, turning water vapor into precipitation.

An MCC is a single system of

clouds

that can reach the size of the state of Ohio and produce heavy rainfall and flooding. An MCS is a smaller cluster of thunderstorms that lasts for several hours. Both react to unique transfers of energy, heat, and moisture caused by

convection

.

The Deep Convective

Clouds

and Chemistry (DC3) field campaign is a program that will study storms and thunder

clouds

in Colorado, Alabama, and Oklahoma. This project will consider how

convection

influences the formation and movement of storms, including the development of lightning. It will also study their impact on aircraft and flight patterns. The DC3 program will use data gathered from research aircraft able to fly over the tops of storms.

Synoptic Scale Meteorology
Synoptic-scale

phenomena

cover an area of several hundred or even thousands of kilometers. High- andlow-pressure systems seen on local

weather

forecasts

, are synoptic in scale. Pressure, much like

convection

, is an important meteorological principle that is at the root of large-scale

weather

systems as diverse as hurricanes and bitter cold outbreaks.

Low-pressure systems

occur where the atmospheric pressure at the surface of the Earth is less than its surrounding environment. Wind and moisture from areas with higher pressure seek

low-pressure systems

. This movement, in conjunction with the Coriolis force and friction, causes the system to rotate counter-clockwise in the Northern Hemisphere and clockwise in the Southern Hemisphere, creating a cyclone.

Cyclones

have a tendency for upward vertical motion. This allows moist air from the surrounding area to rise, expand and

con

dense

into water

vapor

, forming

clouds

. This movement of moisture and air causes the majority of our

weather

events.

Hurricanes

are a result of

low-pressure systems

(

cyclones

) developing over tropical waters in the Western Hemisphere. The system sucks up massive amounts of warm moisture from the sea, causing

convection

to take place, which in turn causes wind speeds to increase and pressure to fall. When these winds reach speeds over 119 kilometers per hour (74 miles per hour), the

cyclone

is classified as a

hurricane

.

Hurricanes

can be one of the most devastating natural disasters in the Western Hemisphere. The National Hurricane Center, in Miami, Florida, regularly issues

forecasts

and reports on all tropical

weather

systems. During

hurricane

season,

hurricane

specialists issue

forecasts

and warnings for every tropical storm in the western tropical Atlantic and eastern tropical Pacific. Businesses and government officials from the United States, the Caribbean, Central America, and South America rely on

forecasts

from the

National

Hurricane

Center

.

High-pressure systems occur where the atmospheric pressure at the surface of the Earth is greater than its surrounding environment. This pressure has a tendency for downward vertical motion, allowing for dry air and clear skies.

Extremely cold temperatures are a result of

high-pressure systems

that develop over the Arctic and move over the Northern Hemisphere. Arctic air is very cold because it develops over ice and snow-covered ground. This cold air is so

dense

that it pushes against Earth’s surface with extreme pressure, preventing any moisture or heat from staying within the system.

Meteorologists have identified many semi-permanent areas of high-pressure. The Azores high, for instance, is a relatively stable region of high pressure around the Azores, an archipelago in the mid-Atlantic Ocean. The Azores high is responsible for arid temperatures of the Mediterranean basin, as well as summer heat waves in Western Europe.

Global Scale Meteorology
Global scale

phenomena

are weather patterns related to the transport of heat, wind, and moisture from the tropics to the poles. An important pattern is global atmospheric circulation, the large-scale movement of air that helps distribute thermal energy (heat) across the surface of the Earth.

Global atmospheric

circulation

is the fairly constant movement of winds across the globe. Winds develop as

air masses

move from areas of high pressure to areas of low pressure.

Global atmospheric

circulation

is largely driven by Hadley cells.

Hadley cells

are tropical and equatorial

convection

patterns.

Convection

drives warm air high in the atmosphere, while cool,

dense

air pushes lower in a constant loop. Each loop is a

Hadley cell

.

Hadley cells

determine the flow of trade winds, which meteorologists

forecast

. Businesses, especially those exporting products across oceans, pay close attention to the strength of

trade winds

because they help ships travel faster. Westerlies are winds that blow from the west in the midlatitudes. Closer to the

Equator

,

trade winds

blow from the northeast (north of the

Equator

) and the southeast (south of the

Equator

).

Meteorologists study long-term

climate

patterns that disrupt

global atmospheric

circulation

. Meteorologists discovered the pattern of El Nino, for instance. El Niño involves ocean

currents

and

trade winds

across the Pacific Ocean.

El Niño

occurs roughly every five years, disrupting

global atmospheric

circulation

and affecting local

weather

and economies from Australia to Peru.

El Niño

is linked with changes in air pressure in the Pacific Ocean known as the Southern Oscillation.

Air pressure

drops over the eastern Pacific, near the coast of the Americas, while

air pressure

rises over the western Pacific, near the coasts of Australia and Indonesia.

Trade winds

weaken. Eastern Pacific nations experience extreme rainfall. Warm ocean

currents

reduce fish stocks, which depend on nutrient-rich upwelling of cold water to thrive. Western Pacific nations experience drought, devastating agricultural production.

Understanding the meteorological processes of

El Niño

helps farmers, fishers, and coastal residents prepare for the

climate

pattern.

History of Meteorology

The development of

meteorology

is deeply connected to developments in science, math, and technology. The Greek philosopher Aristotle wrote the first major study of the atmosphere around 340 BCE. Many of Aristotle’s ideas were incorrect, however, because he did not believe it was necessary to make scientific observations.

A growing belief in the scientific method profoundly changed the study of

meteorology

in the 17th and 18th centuries. Evangelista Torricelli, an Italian physicist, observed that changes in

air pressure

were connected to changes in

weather

. In 1643, Torricelli invented the barometer, to accurately measure the pressure of air. The

barometer

is still a key instrument in understanding and

forecasting

weather

systems. In 1714, Daniel Fahrenheit, a German

physicist

, developed the mercury thermometer. These instruments made it possible to accurately measure two important atmospheric variables.

There was no way to quickly transfer

weather

data until the invention of the telegraph by American inventor Samuel Morse in the mid-1800s. Using this new technology, meteorological offices were able to share information and produce the first modern

weather

maps. These maps combined and displayed more complex sets of information such as isobars (lines of equal

air pressure

) and isotherms (lines of equal temperature). With these large-scale

weather

maps, meteorologists could examine a broader geographic picture of

weather

and make more accurate

forecasts

.

In the 1920s, a group of Norwegian meteorologists developed the concepts of

air masses

and fronts that are the building blocks of modern

weather

forecasting

. Using basic laws of physics, these meteorologists discovered that huge cold and warm

air masses

move and meet in patterns that are the root of many

weather

systems.

Military operations during World War I and World War II brought great advances to

meteorology

. The success of these operations was highly dependent on

weather

over vast regions of the globe. The military invested heavily in training, research, and new technologies to improve their understanding of

weather

. The most important of these new technologies was

radar

, which was developed to detect the presence, direction, and speed of aircraft and ships. Since the end of World War II,

radar

has been used and improved to detect the presence, direction, and speed of

precipitation

and wind patterns.

The technological developments of the 1950s and 1960s made it easier and faster for meteorologists to observe and predict

weather

systems on a massive scale. During the 1950s, computers created the first

models

of atmospheric conditions by running hundreds of data points through complex equations. These

models

were able to predict large-scale

weather

, such as the series of high- and

low-pressure systems

that circle our planet.

TIROS I, the first meteorological

satellite

, provided the first accurate

weather

forecast

from space in 1962. The success of TIROS I prompted the creation of more sophisticated

satellites

. Their ability to collect and

transmit

data with extreme accuracy and speed has made them indispensable to meteorologists. Advanced

satellites

and the computers that process their data are the primary tools used in

meteorology

today.

Meteorology Today

Today’s meteorologists have a variety of tools that help them examine, describe,

model

, and predict

weather

systems. These technologies are being applied at different meteorological scales, improving

forecast

accuracy and efficiency.

Radar

is an important remote sensing technology used in

forecasting

. A

radar

dish is an active sensor in that it sends out radio waves that bounce off particles in the atmosphere and return to the dish. A computer processes these pulses and determines the horizontal dimension of

clouds

and

precipitation

, and the speed and direction in which these

clouds

are moving.

A new technology, known as dual-polarization radar,

transmits

both horizontal and vertical

radio wave

pulses. With this additional pulse,

dual-polarization

radar

is better able to estimate

precipitation

. It is also better able to differentiate types of

precipitation

—rain, snow, sleet, or hail.

Dual-polarization

radar

will greatly improve flash-flood and winter-

weather

forecasts

.

Tornado research is another important component of

meteorology

. Starting in 2009, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Science Foundation conducted the largest

tornado

research project in history, known as VORTEX2. The VORTEX2 team, consisting of about 200 people and more than 80

weather

instruments, traveled more than 16,000 kilometers (10,000 miles) across the Great Plains of the United States to collect data on how, when, and why

tornadoes

form. The team made history by collecting extremely detailed data before, during, and after a specific

tornado

. This

tornado

is the most intensely examined in history and will provide key insights into

tornado

dynamics.

Satellites

are extremely important to our understanding of global scale

weather

phenomena

. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and NOAA operate three Geostationary Operational Environmental

Satellites

(GOES) that provide

weather

observations for more than 50 percent of the Earth’s surface.

GOES-15, launched in 2010, includes a solar X-ray imager that monitors the sun’s

X-rays

for the early detection of solar

phenomena

, such as solar flares.

Solar flares

can affect military and commercial

satellite

communications around the globe. A highly accurate imager produces visible and infrared images of Earth’s surface, oceans,

cloud

cover, and severe storm developments. Infrared imagery detects the movement and transfer of heat, improving our understanding of the global energy balance and processes such as global warming,

convection

, and severe

weather

.

Fast Fact

Christopher Columbus, Meteorologist
In 1495, explorer Christopher Columbus recorded what might be the first account of a hurricane. While docked off La Isabela, Hispaniola (now the Dominican Republic), Columbus lost three ships in a violent storm. Modern meteorologists debate whether the storm was an actual hurricane or a tornado and waterspout. Columbus attests that "nothing but the service of God and the extension of the monarchy'' would persuade him to endure another storm like that.

Fast Fact

Humid Curls
Horace Benedict de Saussure was an amateur alpine climber, physicist, and meteorologist. In 1783, he constructed the first hygrometer, an instrument that measures humidity. The medium he used to measure the amount of moisture in the air? Human hair. The hair Sassure tested relaxed, or lengthened, in moist weather. It tensed, or curled, in dry weather.

Fast Fact

Seal of Approval
Since 1982, the National Weather Association has promoted quality weather broadcasting by issuing a Weathercaster Seal of Approval to qualified broadcasters. The seal exam is difficult, and only 918 people in the U.S. are certified. Find out if your local weather forecaster has made the list!

Fast Fact

Storm Synchronicity
"Unlike history, meteorology does repeat itself."
Dr. Mel Goldstein, meteorologist

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