How Climatology Is Different From Meteorology

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Climatology is the study of the slowly varying behavior of Earth's atmosphere, oceans, and land (climate) over a period of time. It can also be thought of as weather over a period of time. It is considered a branch of meteorology.

A person who studies or practices climatology professionally is known as a climatologist.

Two main areas of climatology include paleoclimatology, the study of past climates by examining records such as ice cores and tree rings; and historical climatology, the study of climate as it relates to human history over the last few thousand years.

What Do Climatologists Do?

Everyone knows that meteorologists work to forecast the weather. But what about climatologists? They study:

  • Climate variability: Climate variability describes short-term (lasting years to decades) changes in climate caused by naturally occurring events like El Niño, volcanic activity, or changes in the sun's activity (solar cycles).
  • Climate change: Climate change is a warming or cooling in long-term (lasting decades to millions of years) weather patterns, at different places around the world.
  • Global warming: Global warming describes an increase in Earth's average temperature over time. Note: Although climate change and global warming are two different things, when we talk about "climate change" we're usually referring to global warming because our planet is currently warming temperatures.

Climatologists study the above in a number of ways, including studying climate patterns — long-term that have a bearing on our weather today. These climate patterns include El Niño, La Niña, the Arctic oscillation, North Atlantic oscillation, and so on.

Commonly gathered climate data and maps include:

  • Temperature
  • Precipitation (rainfall and drought)
  • Snow and ice cover
  • Severe weather (thunderstorms and tornadoes frequency)
  • Surface radiation
  • Ocean temperatures (SSTs)

One of the benefits of climatology is the availability of data for past weather. Understanding past weather can give meteorologists and everyday citizens a view of trends in weather over an extended period of time in most locations around the globe.

Although climate has been tracked for a while, there are some data that cannot be obtained; generally anything before 1880. For this, scientists turn to climate models to forecast and generate a best guess of what the climate may have looked like in the past and what it may look like into the future.

Why Climatology Matters

Weather made its way into mainstream media in the late 1980s and 1990s, but climatology is only now gaining in popularity as global warming becomes a "live" concern for our society. What once was little more than a laundry list of numbers and data is now a key to understanding how our weather and climate could change within our foreseeable future.

Edited by Tiffany Means