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Climatology and Meteorology

Both climatology and meteorology are branches of physical science that deal with the weather. While they are related to one another in many ways, they aren’t the same thing. As the saying goes, the weather changes frequently, but the climate is relatively stable. That saying defines the major difference between the two sciences, which is basically one of time.

Climatology is the study of long-term trends in the Earth’s weather and also tends to focus on larger areas, such as continents or the entire globe. Meteorology, on the other hand, concerns itself with day-to-day weather events, weather prediction over the short term, and relatively small areas such as cities or regions.

Equipment

Meteorologists and climatologists use much of the same equipment, but in different ways. Here we look at specific instruments and how each discipline uses them.

Satellites

Along with radar, satellites are among the most sophisticated and expensive equipment used in atmospheric science. For meteorologists, satellites provide two useful pieces of information. First and foremost, they allow for weather tracking on a large scale and over time. The large “view” of satellites is what allows us to track hurricanes, El Nino events, and other large weather patterns. Though not perfect, satellites increase hurricane (typhoon) warnings from hours to days and provide weather information that stretches out over roughly a week for any particular location in the world. The second use of satellites in meteorology is in atmospheric data collection that helps guide predictions. Things like temperature, barometric pressure, and more are collected by satellites and then used in models to make short-term (usually 10 days at most) predictions about weather.

Climatologists make very different use of satellites because they are less interested in day-to-day changes or in tracking specific storms. To climatologists, satellites offer important data about physical processes occurring at different levels of the atmosphere. These processes would be difficult or impossible to track by other means, though weather balloons are still used to some extent. Satellites, for instance, can be used to track temperature at various levels and follow convective currents to learn how energy is circulated within the atmosphere. Satellites can also be used to track climate indices like the North Atlantic Oscillation and measure things like sea level rise and ice coverage, all of which are critical to understanding long-term trends in Earth’s weather.

Radar

Radar is a major piece of atmospheric equipment, with most units costing tens of millions of dollars (USD). Many people are probably familiar with Doppler radar, which allows meteorologists to track storms in high detail and make predictions about things like tornado touchdown probabilities, rainfall amounts, storm tracks, etc.

Radar is less useful to climatologists because it is used for minute-to-minute observation of the weather, but that does not mean it is entirely useless to them. Pressure data, wind data, and other information collected over long periods of time by radar can be combined with things like satellite data to understand how upper-level atmospheric phenomena relate to surface phenomena.

A Note about Scale

Scale is not a useful way to distinguish meteorology from climatology unless the scale is applied to time. In terms of area, though, the two overlap too much to make scale a useful method of distinction. Atmospheric science divides scale into four main categories:

  • Microscale – Areas of 1 km or less. This usually falls under the domain of meteorology as it is mostly concerned with tracking individual storms, etc. However, urban climatologists may concern themselves with small areas, even down to individual city blocks.
  • Mesoscale – This is the study of scales in two different directions, horizontal and vertical. Horizontal areas (surface areas) ranging from the microscale below to the synoptic scale at the upper bound. Vertical scaling includes all layers of the Earth’s atmosphere except the upper stratosphere.
  • Synoptic Scale – This is the study of large things like jet streams, frontal zones, and cyclones. Satellite data is virtually essential to studies done at this scale
  • Global scale – Just like it sounds, this is the study of weather patterns over the entire globe. While it may seem that this would be the sole domain of climatologists, remember that meteorologists are also interested in things like the El Nino-Southern Oscillation because it directly impacts weather predictions.
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