WeatherWhys Blog

Atmospheric Sciences Education in America

Weather conditions have always been critical to agriculture, transportation and commerce. Through the ages while humanity has engaged to better understanding the atmosphere, college courses in meteorology have appeared only recently. Through its scientific infancy, weather observation and forecasting was conducted by hobbyists with a bent toward general science. US military weather records were compiled by the surgeon corps at remote outposts for much of the 19th century. When the US Weather Bureau was formed in 1890 as a civilian operation within the Agriculture Department, a succession of academics was chosen to lead it. The Bureau’s first chief was Professor Mark W. Harrington from the University of Michigan. He held a Master’s Degree in mathematics and astronomy, continuing to teach after his bureaucratic tenure. Meantime, many of the modern constructs of atmospheric science were being developed by Norwegians early in the 20th century. For the first several decades that followed, these concepts were included in syllabi of several colleges and universities in geology or earth science courses.

It wasn’t until 1928 that the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) developed the first meteorology curriculum in the nation. MIT is near Boston where the American Meteorological Society (AMS) was founded just 9 years earlier. Due to the constant variety of weather conditions year round in New England, this had become a locale of endemic weather awareness and was an obvious region where meteorology should be taught. By the early 1940s, when the US became involved in a world war that utilized immense air power, specialized degrees in meteorology were being offered at other institutions, such as Pennsylvania State University.  A bachelor’s degree specializing in weather was an Earth Science option there in 1942. Meteorology became a separate curriculum at Penn State in 1946. The first Bachelors and Masters of Science degrees in meteorology were granted in 1947 and the first PhD in 1949.

Even though the understanding of weather was becoming more essential with the proliferation of aviation, generally few universities were presenting the discipline as a degree program. Penn State, Princeton, Florida State, and Texas A&M were among some of the early universities to develop meteorology programs. Today, there are 140 institutions in the United States and Canada that do so. Just as meteorology is a geosciences sub-discipline, many specialties have evolved within meteorology over time, ranging from agriculture to numerical weather prediction to climate change. A number of them focus on emerging technology.

Weather data retrieval has become more sublime recently. Direct measurement using instruments that touch the molecules being measured is now often a secondary task to the more exotic methods of remote sensing. Temperature, humidity, wind and pressure can be determined by direct instrumentation (at an airport, for instance) or via sophisticated satellite sensors. The presence, intensity and movement of precipitation systems have now become exceedingly precise with radar interrogation. Meteorologists can warn the public with dramatically improved lead time when threatening weather approaches, thanks to dual polarity Doppler radar, and the host of algorithms that assist forecasters in their analysis. All of this technology has come from extensive and painstaking research done at several universities around the county.

Doppler radar was first conceived in the 1940s with pioneering work by Dr. David Atlas at MIT. Dr. Atlas taught meteorology at the University of Chicago in the 1960s and became director of the atmospheric technologies division at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, CO. His team eventually devised a Doppler radar network for the nation which has been in place since the 1980s. This all was born out of years researching how radar could be tailored and utilized to its maximum potential- research conducted at universities and associated institutions.

Dr. Theodore Fujita was also a well-known alumnus of the University of Chicago. He grew up in Japan and lived in Kokura when the August 1945 atomic bomb hit Nagasaki. Kokura had been a primary target, but cloud cover forced targeting that day to a secondary city, sparing Fujita’s life. A brilliant young scientist, he would study of the effects of that bomb blast, first hand. His work would later lead to groundbreaking research on microbursts and severe storms. The Fujita Scale, which he published in the early 1970s, was the first of a new categorization methodology he invented. Other scientists have borrowed his idea, from the Saffir-Simpson Scale of hurricane intensity to the aches and pain index on the Weather Channel. Today, meteorologists use the Enhanced Fujita (EF) scale when quantifying tornado damage.

Satellites were first launched into orbit during the late 1950s. It was the beginning of a space race with the Soviet Union that would show which country was technologically superior, but also whose political philosophy would reign supreme. Ultimately, the US placed men on the moon first, winning that race. But satellites in earth orbit would have many practical uses to the military, intelligence gathering, earth surveys and meteorology. It was Verner Suomi at the University of Wisconsin who pioneered placing meteorological instruments on satellites. In the early 1960s, the Tiros series (Television and Infrared Observation Satellite) of weather sensors were launched. Ever since, the meteorology department in Madison, WI has been on the forefront of compelling research to better outfit satellites with imagers that could measure every type of geophysical parameter. With the establishment of GOES satellites residing in parked orbits beginning in the 1970s, routine integrated observations of the atmosphere can now be made on an almost minute-to-minute basis. This has proved invaluable, especially regarding severe storm and hurricane prediction.

In the late 1950s Walter Saucier and Yoshi Sasaki, both at Texas A&M at the time, considered the importance of a meteorology program in Oklahoma. This was an area of the country that encountered more severe storms per square mile than any other. By 1960 a meteorology curriculum was being taught within the Engineering Physics program. Sasaki specialized in mesoscale meteorology and would flourish with research opportunities there. The Department of Meteorology was finally established Norman, OK in 1969 as part of the College of Engineering. During the 1960s, the National Severe Storms Laboratory moved from Kansas City to Oklahoma. This set the precedent of a government activity working directly with a university. Not only are their purposes symbiotic, but students are also given job opportunities. Today the National Weather Center houses the Storm Prediction Center, the local National Weather Service Forecast Office, various research facilities and the Meteorology Department of OU.

The relationship between government and academia remains strong today with federal grants fueling research at most of the 140 colleges and universities that offer meteorology curricula. Besides the richness of understanding how our ocean of air operates, its benefits and dangers, meteorologists are graduating today from educational institutions that continue to open technological pathways to the future. Compared to other scientific disciplines, meteorology is young. But that only means there are many breakthroughs yet to be discovered by enterprising minds that are eager to lead the way.