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What is Meteorology? - Definition, History & Facts

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  • 0:01 Definition of Meterology
  • 1:23 Meterology vs. Climatology
  • 2:32 Branches of Meterology
  • 5:08 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Heather Pier

Heather has taught high school and college science courses, and has a master's degree in geography-climatology.

Meteorology is the study of Earth's atmosphere. In this lesson, learn the difference between meteorology and climatology, and explore the history and interdisciplinary nature of its study.

Definition of Meteorology

What is meteorology? No, it isn't the study of meteors, although it does involve the study of other sorts of objects that fall from the sky. Meteorology is, by definition, the study of Earth's atmosphere. The root of meteor is a variation on the Greek meteoron, which is a term dealing with any objects that originate in the sky.

Meteorology is an extremely interdisciplinary science, drawing on the laws of physics and chemistry (among others) to aid in our understanding of Earth's atmosphere, its processes, and its structure. It is a study that dates to ancient times, when ancient civilizations made observations and kept records of weather conditions, both for agricultural purposes and out of a general curiosity about the world around them.

Over the centuries, the atmosphere has been studied for a variety of reasons, including agricultural knowledge, military defense and planning, and developing better warnings for severe weather systems like tornadoes and hurricanes. Technological advances, such as the development of scientific computing and an increase in the total number of meteorological observations being taken daily across the globe, have allowed for better forecasts (or at least the meteorological community likes to think they are better forecasts) and a much better overall understanding of our atmosphere.

Meteorology vs. Climatology

One of the biggest misconceptions about meteorology (aside from the whole meteors issue) is that climate and weather refer to the same things, and therefore, are both part of meteorology. In reality, climate and weather are two very different concepts that can easily be distinguished from one another—if you focus on the timeframe. Meteorology is concerned with the current state of the atmosphere at a given time and place, whereas climatology (the study of climate) is interested in the long-term average weather conditions and trends for a given location.

In that regard, climatology is much like reading a history book and meteorology is more like reading a news article. Climatology can be looked at as the historical record of weather conditions for a location, while meteorology would be the current events or daily news stories for that same location. And much like history, climate patterns do tend to repeat themselves, whereas it is anybody's guess what tomorrow's headline for news might be. As you can see, distinguishing the two fields from one another is as simple as considering the timeframe involved.

Branches of Meteorology

Meteorology is an interdisciplinary science, drawing on knowledge, theory, and laws from a variety of scientific fields for its base. As a result, there are many specialized branches, or subfields, of meteorology, each defined by both the spatial scale of the phenomena they study and by the other branches of science they involve. In terms of spatial scale, all meteorological study is conducted on either the micro-, meso-, synoptic, or global scale.

Microscale meteorology deals with any problems that are on the order of 1 kilometer in size or smaller, things like individual clouds or heat transfers.

Mesoscale meterology includes phenomena in the size range from the upper end of the microscale to several hundred kilometers. Lake effect snowstorms, severe thunderstorms, and mesoscale convective complexes (MCCs) are all part of mesoscale study.

The synoptic scale includes large scale atmospheric concepts, on the order of a thousand kilometers or more and include many features you would see on a daily weather map, like high and low pressure systems and fronts.

Lastly, global scale meteorology, as the name implies, deals with weather systems of a global scale—the most classic example being El Nino. Of all the size scales, it is the global scale studies that are most likely to get confused with climate studies, as many of the global scale problems tend to be more heavily influenced by global climatological patterns than the smaller scale problems are.

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