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Forecasting the Future for Meteorologists

Interest in meteorology is higher than ever thanks to the popularity of weather apps, storm chasing shows and 24-hour TV weather stations. But broadcast meteorology is not the only kind.

"There are actually more meteorologists who have nothing to do with broadcasting than there are broadcast meteorologists," says Eric Sorensen. He's been a TV meteorologist for over 10 years.

And there's more to broadcast meteorology than just being on television. "I may be on TV 10 minutes out of my day, but I fill up the rest of my workday finding other ways to get the weather story across," Sorensen says.

Community outreach and education are a big part of Sorensen's job. He created a program to teach kids about tornado preparedness, for example. He also coordinated relief efforts after a nearby community suffered devastating floods.

Terri Lang says some meteorologists, like her, have specialized media training. "When you're dealing with the media or emergency measures organizations, and it's a crisis situation, you need that training to know how to talk in a crisis. You don't want to freak people out or get them overly upset."

Many kinds of companies and industries hire meteorologists. These include airlines, agriculture firms, insurance companies, wind farms, hydro companies, municipalities and even professional sports organizations. Any type of business that can be affected by weather needs to consult meteorologists.

Some meteorologists work as independent consultants. Others work for companies that develop forecasting technology.

"A company hires their own meteorologist because it's easier than trying to get the very specific information they need," Lang says. "Wind farms, for example, need to know about lightning because their equipment gets zapped. They need to know about winds. But how much it rains or how many days with frost? They don't care."

Types of jobs vary, too. Research is a big part of meteorology. Matthew Rosencrans is a meteorologist in the Operations Prediction Branch of NOAA's Climate Prediction Center in College Park, Maryland.

At any time, Rosencrans might be working with other teams on research projects that will take 10, 15 or even 20 years to complete. "That's interdisciplinary research with huge teams of people doing the research," Rosencrans says. "It's not just a researcher in an office coming up with a great idea."

Rosencrans says projects can take that long because some tools needed to do the research don't exist. "We don't have planes capable of flying into and staying inside tornadoes, so we can't do measurements inside them very well now."

While some large, armored military aircraft might be able to fly inside of a tornado, they could do considerable damage if they fell out of the sky. "So the question is: How do you do that with drones or some other type of technology?"

Research meteorologists figure out those kinds of problems.

It's common for research meteorologists to change their focus early in their careers, then settle into a specific area. "You build your expertise and really become a subject matter expert in that field," Rosencrans says.

The math, science and physics of meteorology haven't changed much since the mid-20th century. "We still use a lot of the same science," Lang says. "It's the technology and how much information we can bring in that's changing so fast."

Rosencrans agrees. "The underlying physics never change, and they never will. That's just how it works," he says. "But our ability to measure them and model them mean our assumptions about the equations are being challenged all the time."

New technology has improved the accuracy of forecasts. But a different kind of technology is changing things, too: social media. As a broadcast meteorologist, Sorensen has seen the value of social media first hand.

"Twitter and Facebook really became valuable to me as a meteorologist the day the Tuscaloosa, Alabama tornado went through the University of Alabama campus in 2011," Sorensen recalls. "I was able to connect with other meteorologists who were there and get real-time information. That allowed me to go on the air and say, 'This is what a meteorologist is saying there right now.'"

Social media also helps get severe weather warnings and information out quickly. "It increases your value as a broadcast meteorologist if you're on social media because you're able to get your message across to more people. And the more people who get your message the better it's going to be," Sorensen says.

Different meteorology jobs require different levels of education.

"Where you want to work will tell you what degree level you want to go for," Rosencrans says. "Private sector or television, you can enter with a bachelor's. But to be competitive in the federal government? There's nobody here who doesn't have at least a master's degree. Some have two master's or a PhD."

Sorensen says many meteorology programs don't include a broadcast component, so students may need to take extra courses. "I had to, on my own, go into my school's communications department and take the necessary courses and get the internships so I could go into television with my degree."

The popularity of weather in the news has created a new breed of armchair forecasters. But real meteorologists have to study hard to be good at their jobs.

"A lot of people think, 'What's so hard about the weather?'" Lang says. "But it's really heavy in math and physics because the atmosphere is fluid, so it uses the physics of fluids. You really have to understand the math and physics behind the atmosphere and why it is the way it is."


The National Weather Service
Learn more about the kinds of jobs available in meteorology

The American Meteorology Society
Read about what the different branches of meteorology involve

NOAA's Educational Resources
Learn about educational opportunities

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