What Is an Atmospheric Scientist?

Atmospheric Scientists can work in almost any field relating to the atmosphere. They are not simply meteorologists and weather forecasters; their qualifications give them the broadest scope of research and study of the atmosphere - future, present and past from large weather systems to small impacts on other biological life.

What Does an Atmospheric Scientist Do?

Atmospheric Science is the umbrella term for anyone who works in studying the atmosphere of our planet. Although the subject covers meteorology (the study of the weather) that is not all it is. Atmospheric scientists may study the weather and make predictions for what it might look like in an hour, a day, a week or in the next season. For example, where a meteorologist may understand and predict the effects of El Niño and La Niña, an Atmospheric Scientist will have the background to understand the process that will lead to those two phenomenon in the first place and will predict when they are expected to appear. They will look at regional patterns and build a map of what the overall picture will look like - the causes and the effects.

In some cases they may work in public health studying air quality and their impact. This often has little to do with weather. They may also predict long term patterns concerning drought and advise on mitigation. Once again, short-term weather is only one small part of this work.

Atmospheric Scientists will also look at older data to build a picture of the climate, weather and atmospheric conditions in the past; meteorologists focus on the present. They are more likely to study ancient data (paleoclimate data) such as tree ring records to the composition of the atmosphere in the past. They will look not just at physics, but chemistry, climatology and the dynamics of weather systems - on this planet and the others in the solar system.

Where Does an Atmospheric Scientist Work?

Thanks to their broad knowledge base, Atmospheric Scientists can work almost anywhere. The EPA may very well be the largest employer of scientists with these qualifications, particularly in pollution monitoring and air quality analysis; they may even play some part (advisory or practical) in remediation.

A large body of atmospheric scientists will be employed in education. At High School level, they may teach geography or earth sciences. At college and university, they will teach students related subjects such as meteorology, earth sciences and atmosphere-related subjects. They may also be employed in public engagement, educating the public about climate science, weather patterns, planetary processes and other information on geoscience from our museums about which they are qualified to speak. Those who have a background in paleoclimate data (or forensic climatology / meteorology) may work with archaeologists (which these days studies ancient climate and landscape data) and other experts who work with historic data.

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What Is the Average Atmospheric Scientist Salary?

Salary will vary depending on the specialization and where the graduate prefers to work. However, the median salary is $99,740. Most people with these qualifications are employed by the Federal government in authority roles such as EPA and NOAA. They also pay one of the highest median salaries, $107,520. The lowest 10% earned an average salary of lower than $52,350, whereas the highest 10% earners had a salary of over $153,510.*

Atmospheric Science Jobs & Job Description

An atmospheric scientist studies and predicts atmospheric conditions and events to better understand climate patterns and the effects of air pollution, as well as to analyze weather patterns and the processes that cause them. This career choice requires a set of responsibilities, which vary significantly from job to job, but the list here includes typical job duties that may be expected of an atmospheric scientist:

  • Measure temperature, atmospheric pressure, humidity, wind speed, dew point, and other properties of the atmosphere
  • Interpret data obtained from weather and meteorological stations, as well as radar images, satellite images, GIS and computer simulations
  • Study climates and gases, their chemical reactions, clouds and the interaction of ultraviolet radiation with atmospheric processes and events
  • Study the physical interactions that occur at the atmospheric level
  • Consider how terrain affects weather and climate; how oceans cause turbulence; and how solar events affect satellite communications and navigation
  • Use computer software that analyze data about the atmosphere (also called meteorological data)
  • Write computer programs to support mathematical modeling efforts
  • Issue warnings to protect life and property when severe weather or oppressive atmospheric conditions become evident
  • Produce forecasts for transportation activities that may affect commercial or recreational consumers
  • Predict future climate and weather trends based on current and historical data
  • Research factors that affect climate change; test theories and data against current body of evidence
  • Illustrate how climate may impact atmospheric conditions throughout the world
  • Advise policymakers on how atmospheric science may impact economics, transportation, society, and agriculture on a local, national or international scale
  • Communicate research findings through appropriate and accessible channels

Senior atmospheric scientists often have enhanced job responsibilities that focus on managerial elements of the department or team, due to the individual's breadth of experience and maturity. Such responsibilities often include:

  • Advise consumers about atmospheric data sets
  • Provide consultation and data interpretation of data to outside agencies, professionals, or researchers
  • Create and deliver scientific presentations
  • Draft and approve research findings, reports and articles for internal or external partners or the general public
  • Engage in the design, development and testing of new atmospheric data collection systems, devices, and software
  • Vet software programs to aid predictive atmospheric modeling
  • Report findings and analysis through approved platforms to clients and the public
  • Create grant applications to fund future projects
  • Oversee finances and deliverables on behalf of the team
  • Provide guidance for junior employees and create a proactive work environment for all staff
  • Ensure that each project phase meets workgroup milestones

What Is the Job Demand for Atmospheric Science?

Demand is expected to increase by 8% between 2020 and 2030. Over 10,000 people work in the various sub-disciplines of atmospheric science. These will include an accumulation of all roles mentioned above. However, it's possible that demand will be even higher in some sub-disciplines depending on which area the graduate opts to work.*

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What Are the Education Requirements to Become an Atmospheric Scientist?

Many of our top colleges in the US offer Atmospheric Science as a bachelor's degree, or a variation on it. The broad scope of the qualification means that a graduate with a degree in this subject has the flexibility to decide his or her own career path. They may work in climate science, meteorology, environmental law and studying ancient climate data.

For those seeking High School education jobs (typically as a geography teacher), a bachelor degree should be enough in most cases. To teach in a college or university, a master's would be the minimum expected qualification although most establishments would tend to favor those with doctorates. Research scientists would certainly need a doctorate.

A master's will also be minimum requirement for other government jobs such as monitoring and fieldwork. Report writing skills will be essential, and these would need to be developed to a high level. A program with a dissertation or thesis would be more attractive than one without.

Atmospheric Science - Related Degrees

What Kind Of Societies and Professional Organizations Do Atmospheric Scientists Have?

The following organizations are Atmospheric Science umbrella organizations or authorities:

  • IAMAS: The International Association of Meteorology and Atmospheric Sciences is the largest global organization of its kind. They have been around for almost a century and provide a global platform for the world's community to discuss and promote work amongst themselves and other interest groups.
  • CAS: Commission for Atmospheric Sciences is a division of the World Meteorological Association that focuses on climate mitigation and information pertaining to research and supporting the global community.
  • NOAA: The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration is the largest US organization dedicated to the study of the wider atmosphere. Their scope includes ocean sciences, earth sciences, extraterrestrial forcings on our environment, human and natural processes.

*2020 US Bureau of Labor Statistics salary figures and job growth projections for atmospheric scientists reflect national data not school-specific information. Conditions in your area may vary. Data accessed September 2021.