What is meteorology?

What is meteorology?

According to the Met Office's Meteorological Glossary, meteorology is "the science of the atmosphere ... embracing both weather and climate. It is concerned with the physical, dynamical and chemical state of the earth's atmosphere (and those of the planets), and with the interactions between the earth's atmosphere and the underlying surface."

The word is derived from the Greek meteoros meaning 'lofty' or 'in the air'; and logia meaning to discuss, study and explain.

A brief history of meteorology

The Greek philosopher Aristotle is often cited as one of the founding fathers of meteorology with his treatise Meteorologica (written in 350 BC) commonly regarded as one of the earliest attempts to understand the earth's atmosphere and the water cycle.

Many weather sayings and proverbs that we use today are in some sense a preservation of early observed meteorology. Expressions such as 'red sky at night shepherd's delight' were simply based on anecdotal observations that a red sky in the evening was more often than not followed by good weather the next day, without any particular attention paid to the reason this might be so. Indeed more often than not, these expressions do not hold particularly tight but are evidence of people throughout history observing and recording the skies, elements of which are still key to meteorology today.

Meteorology today

Thanks to innovations in communications and observing techniques such as satellite imagery and radar, meteorologists have progressed from only being able to observe and record weather conditions at specific points on the earth's surface to having the ability to analyse the large-scale changes in weather systems worldwide.

This has enabled us to make huge advances in our understanding of the physical processes that define our weather, and, combined with modern computing methods, has led us to develop a range of numerical models which are at the core of our modern day forecasts. By combining our world-class models with a wealth of local and empirical knowledge and a vast observations network, Met Office meteorologists are able to tailor forecasts and weather warnings to the needs of individuals and organisations.

However, as we all know there is always a degree of uncertainty with the weather, and modern day meteorology is as much about understanding current conditions and how they could evolve as it is about making clear-cut predictions. Nowadays, we might know that the sky is red in the morning because of an approaching frontal system; however the timings and locations of any heavier rain, the likelihood of any cloud breaks and the exact temperatures that this will bring can still be relatively uncertain. And that's why the weather is our favourite subject!

Is meteorology anything to do with meteors?

Many people can confuse meteorology as the study of meteors for obvious reasons. Both words share the same Greek root meteoros (meaning 'in the air') hence the similarity of the two words.

In Aristotle's time when he was giving rise to the term 'meteorology', astronomy and the weather were believed to be very closely related and accordingly most anything that came from the sky could be categorised as a meteor, including rain, snow, hail etc.

Since then, meteorology has evolved to become concerned with weather and climate rather than meteors which are instead studied by astronomers.

But the association doesn't end there. Meteors can still be of interest to meteorologists. The Met Office plays an integral part in forecasting weather conditions when a meteor shower occurs and we also provide detailed space weather forecasts which are concerned with when magnetic fields, radiation, particles and matter in space interact with the Earth's upper atmosphere.

Meteorology is also sometimes mistaken for metrology which is, in fact, the science of measurement.