The science of the atmosphere: what you need to know

Climate change is one of the most pressing issues of our time. This article provides an atmospheric science definition to help increase your understanding of the field, an overview of why it is important, and information on how atmospheric scientists are working to lessen the impacts of climate change.

What is atmospheric science?

Atmospheric science refers to the study of the atmosphere, its processes, and the effects of the interaction between the Earth’s atmosphere and other systems. Atmospheric scientists investigate and analyze the circulation of the atmosphere as it relates to weather systems and their resulting influence on the Earth, air quality, and human health and safety. There are many branches of atmospheric science, including aeronomy—the study of the upper layers of the atmosphere—meteorology, climatology, oceanography, atmospheric chemistry, and atmospheric physics.

According to NASA, the majority of atmospheric scientists in the US are employed by the federal government for the National Weather Service and other National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) branches, as well as NASA, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Departments of Defense and Energy, and the Forest Service. Atmospheric scientists may also work for television and radio stations, private weather services, commercial airlines, public utilities, and colleges and universities.

Read on to learn more about some of the areas of specialization in atmospheric science and explore atmospheric science jobs that may pique your interest.


When you hear the term “meteorology,” you likely immediately think of weather forecasting. However, this science covers all aspects of the Earth’s atmosphere, including atmospheric physics and chemistry. Meteorologists observe atmospheric phenomena such as localized temperatures, air pressure fluctuations, dew points, and wind speeds. They also use computers and mathematical models, in addition to satellite and radar information, to predict what weather systems will do daily and weekly, locally, and nationally. Research in meteorology also focuses on long-term trends in climate and weather and the potential effects of climate change on humans.


Climatology is sometimes confused with meteorology, but rather than focusing on weather forecasting, this science focuses on the atmospheric conditions that cause climate change over time. Climatologists record and analyze weather patterns around the globe and study the natural and artificial forces that affect weather patterns in the long term. For example, climatologists have determined that human activities that release greenhouse gases (burning fossil fuels, especially) are linked to global warming. Climatology research also examines what constitutes normal regional weather patterns, the global climate consequences of natural changes in air and ocean currents like El Niño and La Niña, and the effects that solar activity and variations in solar energy have on climate.

Atmospheric chemistry

Atmospheric chemistry is a multidisciplinary field that studies chemical processes within the Earth’s atmosphere to better predict how they may impact air pollution, air quality, and climate change. Atmospheric chemists perform research that often draws from meteorology, climatology, environmental chemistry, oceanography, geology, physics, and computer modeling. Unfortunately, human activity has changed the composition of the Earth’s atmosphere in ways that can be harmful to human health, crops, and ecosystems. Atmospheric chemists seek to understand the root cause of problems such as photochemical smog, acid rain, and global warming so effective solutions can be evaluated and implemented.


Teleconnections are links between weather phenomena at different places around the world that often include climate patterns spanning thousands of miles. Some teleconnections have a seesaw effect wherein a shift in atmospheric pressure in one location can cause a decrease in pressure in another far-off locale.

If you’re a frequent flyer, you may have heard of jet streams, which are fast-flowing air currents that can decrease your flight times, depending on the direction you’re traveling. Rossby waves are naturally occurring and help balance hot and cold air between the tropics and the poles. When these waves interact with a jet stream, it creates a fast-moving highway for teleconnections to travel around the world and, in some cases, wreak havoc with weather patterns.

ENSO teleconnections

The El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) is a recurring climate pattern that involves rising and cooling temperatures in the central and eastern tropical Pacific Ocean for timespans ranging from around three to seven years. This fluctuating warming and cooling cycle has a direct impact on precipitation distribution in the tropics and it can strongly influence weather in the United States, Canada, and locations around the world. The two most extreme phases of the ENSO cycle are major teleconnections called El Niño and La Niña.

El Niño and La Niña

El Niño and La Niña are somewhat unpredictable and can have global effects on weather, wildfires, economies, and ecosystems. El Niño occurs more frequently, typically peaks in December, and involves the weakening of trade winds as warm water is pushed back east toward the western coast of the Americas. As warmer waters cause the Pacific jet stream to move southward, areas in the northern US and Canada become warmer and drier than usual, while the US Gulf Coast and Southeast see increased rain and flooding. El Niño can also have a negative impact on the marine life of the Pacific coast when it weakens or stops upwelling, which leaves less nutrient-rich phytoplankton to feed fish.

La Niña is the inverse of El Niño in that trade winds are stronger than average, which pushes warm water toward Asia. Upswelling also increases, bringing cold, nutrient-dense water to the surface (which supports marine life) along the west coast of the Americas. The colder water in the Pacific Ocean pushes the jet stream northward, which often results in cooler temperatures, heavy precipitation, and flooding in the Pacific Northwest and Canada. Meanwhile, in the southern US, warmer temperatures and droughts may become more prevalent. La Niña is also correlated with an increase in the severity of hurricane seasons.

Connection to wildfires

It’s been established that ENSO teleconnections have a major impact on climate events around the world. A recent study of satellite data and information gathered from global weather stations from 1982 to 2018 found connections between droughts and major fires on different continents that occurred in close succession. The climate scientists found weather patterns that supported conditions more favorable to fires, such as vegetation growth, temperature, and precipitation levels—and the primary link was the Tropical North Atlantic teleconnection.

The North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO), which results in changes in the strength of a low-pressure system over Iceland and a high-pressure system in the subtropical Atlantic, has been known to cause unusual weather in the northern hemisphere. Researchers found that its pattern of changing sea surface temperatures over the Atlantic Ocean, near the equator, correlated with the timing of approximately 25% of global fires. As such, the team suggests that the NAO is one of the most powerful drivers of fires around the world.

Impact on current and future climate change

Atmospheric scientists are on the front lines in terms of researching the effects of climate change, finding ways to prevent it, and educating the public and the government on the dire need for effective climate change policy. The Earth’s temperature has increased by approximately 0.14° Fahrenheit per decade since 1880, which is about 2° F in total. But the changing climate also involves rising sea levels, shrinking glaciers and sea ice, earlier snow melts, and increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Changes in weather patterns, such as drought and flooding, can have a catastrophic effect on clean water, air quality, the food supply, human health, transportation, energy, wildlife, and ecosystems around the world.

The impacts of climate change are also intricately connected. For instance, flooding can spread disease and damage infrastructure and ecosystems, while human health issues can impact the food supply and limit worker productivity. It’s important to note that the negative effects of climate change aren’t felt equally. Single communities, cities, regions, and countries can be impacted in different ways, and often the most vulnerable populations experience the highest exposure and have the least resources to combat it due to socioeconomic inequities.

Experts believe that reducing emissions of greenhouse gases—including carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and F-gases—to zero as quickly as possible is one of many necessary strategies to fight climate change and lessen these major impacts. Doing so requires strong co-operation between international governments. That’s why the work of atmospheric scientists is so important, as their research is used to convince countries to participate in and comply with the Paris Agreement and other initiatives to tackle climate change on a global scale.

Further enhance your understanding of climate change

Interested in developing the skills and policies to reduce human, economic, and environmental risk? In the four-course Certificate in Climate Change at Penn LPS Online, you’ll obtain an understanding of the Earth’s climate system and learn how and why it has changed over time. Through the disciplines of oceanic and atmospheric science, you’ll focus on the natural and human drivers of climate change and discover how to analyze long-term natural climate variability on a regional and global level. You’ll also hone communication skills to effectively share your knowledge of climate change and its relevant policy implications.
Additionally, this Ivy League credential prepares you to:

  • Understand the history and scales of climate changes
  • Learn basic oceanic and atmospheric dynamics to understand fundamental climatic processes
  • Grasp the importance of natural environmental change as a benchmark to assess human impacts, as well as recent and future environmental events

If you haven’t already, apply to Penn LPS Online today and enroll in the Certificate in Climate Change. You can also register for individual courses such as CLCH 2200: Atmospheric Science or view our course guide to see what’s available in any upcoming term.

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