The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.


meteorology, branch of science that deals with the atmosphere of a planet, particularly that of the earth, the most important application of which is the analysis and prediction of weather. Individual studies within meteorology include aeronomy, the study of the physics of the upper atmosphere; aerology, the study of free air not adjacent to the earth's surface; applied meteorology, the application of weather data for specific practical problems; dynamic meteorology, the study of atmospheric motions (which also includes the meteorology of other planets and satellites in the solar system); and physical meteorology, which focuses on the physical properties of the atmosphere.

Development of Meteorology

Aristotle's Meteorologica (c.340 BC) is the oldest comprehensive treatise on meteorological subjects. Although most of the discussion is inaccurate in the light of modern understanding, Aristotle's work was respected as the authority in meteorology for some 2,000 years. In addition to further commentary on the Meteorologica, this period also saw attempts to forecast the weather according to astrological events, using techniques introduced by Ptolemy.

As speculation gave way to experimentation following the scientific revolution, advances in the physical sciences made contributions to meteorology, most notably through the invention of instruments for measuring atmospheric conditions, e.g., Leonardo da Vinci's wind vane (1500), Galileo's thermometer (c.1593), and Torricelli's mercury barometer (1643). Further developments included Halley's account of the trade winds and monsoons (1686) and Ferrel's theory of the general circulation of the atmosphere (1856). The invention of the telegraph made possible the rapid collection of nearly simultaneous weather observations for large continental and marine regions, thus providing a view of the large-scale pressure and circulation patterns that determine the weather.

Modern Meteorological Science and Technology

In 1917 the Norwegian physicist Vilhelm Bjerknes introduced his theory describing the formation of wave cyclones on the polar front and laid the foundation for modern methods of weather forecasting. In 1922, L. F. Richardson perceived the basis for the mathematical prediction of the atmospheric circulation, and in 1938 C. G. Rossby made additional mathematical contributions. Application of this treatment by Richardson and Rossby awaited the introduction of high-speed electronic computers, which were first used for weather forecasting in the late 1940s by J. G. Charney and John Von Neumann. By 1955 computer forecasts were being made operationally and computer forecasting models have been improved steadily since then.

Since 1959 meteorological satellites have provided an overview of the atmosphere's cloud patterns, serving among other things as an early warning and detection system for hurricanes, typhoons, and tropical cyclones. Infrared sensors mounted on meteorological satellites now provide observations of the vertical temperature structure of the atmosphere, and research efforts continue the development of computer forecasting models capable of utilizing these and other satellite data to improve current weather-predicting skills. Meteorological studies have been aided by the use of large computers for atmospheric modeling. Information gathered by weather balloons and earth-orbiting satellites have been used in computer models to predict long-term and short-term meteorological events such as changes in ozone levels and daily movements of storms, respectively.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has the major governmental responsibility in the United States for monitoring and forecasting the weather and conducting meteorological research. The Air Force Weather Agency and the Fleet Numerical Meteorology and Oceanography Center have similar responsibilities within the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy, respectively; space applications to meteorology are researched by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) as well as by the National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service, which is under the auspices of NOAA. In addition to a host of universities conducting meteorological research, there is the National Center for Atmospheric Research, which is operated by an affiliation of universities and sponsored by the U.S. National Science Foundation. The World Weather Watch, organized by the World Meteorological Organization, collects and disseminates information on a global basis. A number of private companies also engage in operational and research meteorological activities.


See C. D. Ahrens, Meteorology Today (1988); J. M. Moran, Meteorology (1991).

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