It’s obvious that I’ll have to come back to what temperature really means and doesn’t mean in climate change. Right now I have another provocative comment I need to follow up on, since a couple of younger readers seem tempted by the trap. I will explain my impression of why undergraduate programs in meteorology exist, and why for the most part, at least as they are constituted in the United States, they should not.
Once upon a time, Abraham Lincoln, who for historical reasons was actually a Republican (the Republican party began in Wisconsin as a radical anti-slavery movement but I digress) suggested spreading around federal money to create agricultural universities in each of the remote new states. (This is why Lincoln’s statue sits atop Bascom Hill.) Of course, weather and climate were interests of these agricultural schools, and a tradition of having a state climatologist, more or less a collector of statistics in big pencil spreadsheets, emerged.
In the twentieth century, under the influence of Bjerknes and Rossby, the Norwegians and the University of Chicago, meteorology emerged from folk wisdom and began to be a quantitative science. However, though the equations for the system were known at that time, hand calculation of their evolution was impractical, and machine calculation would not emerge as a realistic possibility until about 1970. On the other hand, by mid-century a number of elegant abstractions had emerged from people looking for ways to find shortcuts with the established physical equations. This was the heyday of mathematical meteorological dynamics.
During this period, the shortcuts were merged with meteorological lore, and skills in weather forecasting measurably improved. Also, aviation emerged, a field which in its early days was enormously concerned with where storms were coming from and where they were going. An old retired fellow who still hung around the Meteorology department in Madison (when I was pursuing my doctorate there) had been a meteorologist for Pan Am, the first airline (? or at least among the first?) to offer commercial trans-Pacific flights. It was not a desk job. When that flight set out for Honolulu and then Tokyo or Sydney, he’d be on board, advising the pilot to duck this way and that.
Now consider a few facts.
First (this was before climate disruption a.k.a. “global warming” was a consideration for more than a handful of very perceptive scientists) the atmosphere is really beautiful and interesting and a wonderful pursuit, mostly classical physics so no need for all that Heisenberg mumbo jumbo, and offers many opportunities for travel and international cooperation. The pay, not fabulous, is decent, In short, mid-century, a meteorology professorship is a very sweet gig for various sorts of nerd.
Second, “meteorologist” was a meaningful career path. Meteorologists, who become specialists in the weather of a particular place, are in demand not just in the universities, but also in the news business, where different outlets really could compete on skill, in aviation, and in the military. So there was demand for training.
Third, there was already the stamp-collecting sort of climatologist at the land grant colleges, and there is a natural connection to agriculture. This leads to a proliferation of meteorology departments at the land grant colleges. Aside from the fading program at Chicago and the emerging one at MIT, the main centers are Madison, Ann Arbor, Oklahoma State, Penn State, Florida State, Texas A&M, Purdue… The private schools just aren’t involved for the most part. No Northwestern, no Rice, no Yale, no Vanderbilt,
Now we come to the paradox of how state universities are funded. As I said in the article where I blurted out reference to this problem, the state universities are forever trying to justify their existence to yahoos in state legislatures who have no compunction about free riding on research expenditures elsewhere. There will always be elements in the state assemblies that will not fund anything that doesn’t contribute directly to their constituents pocketbooks. Civilization and intellectual bragging rights don’t wash for some of those people. You have to convince them that while, yes, you get some money on the side from research, research is a cost of doing business for a great university, sort of like a big-league football team. Your main purpose is to educate young minds, to bring up the future leaders of the great state of W. Or X, or Y or what have you.
Now the university, having succeeded in defending its funding, parcels it out to the various departments. And notice what it does. It parcels out the funds in proportion to how many student-hours the department teaches. This is why “rocks for jocks” courses exist in geology departments and why every department has a course or two in a major lecture hall that is basically light entertainment. But the massive lecture hall freshman class isn’t enough. Individual professors prosper by their research, but the department has to keep as many seats full as possible.
So, it emerges that now that operational meteorology is more of a computer app than a skill, academic meteorology is in a very awkward position. Between 1970 and 1990 the skill set they have been teaching becomes largely obsolete, as computers show up that are powerful enough to actually grind through the math in detail. Yes, a few super-meteorologists are needed to program those machines, but the numbers of trainees needed is going to plummet.
The clearest illustration of this is the grotesque “broadcast meteorology track”, a poor man’s radio/TV/film major where physics and chemistry and calculus are required for no discernible reason. I call this the David Letterman track, where real success is determined by how far and how fast you can hustle your butt away from meteorology.
Yes, Tom Skilling is great. How many markets can support how many Tom Skillings?
The point is this. If you are a meteorology undergraduate at a state funded land grant college, your purpose is basically to inflate the enrollment so as to keep the number of professorships in the department high. You will learn no marketable skill.
Look at yourself very carefully and decide why this shabby career path interests you. Are you obsessed with meteorology or climatology in some way? If not, forget it altogether. This is still a field in decline for people without postgraduate degrees.
If you are obsessed, decide whether you really are scientist material. Do you love mathematics? Do you love solving problems? Are you happiest when your brain is at its smartest? AND you want to know how the atmosphere works. GREAT! Get a degree in a general science where scale is big enough that a strong teaching tradition exists. Physics. Chemistry. Engineering. Electrical engineering. (Yes, electrical engineering is really good for the brain. You’ll probably want some fluid dynamics on the side with that one. Focus on systems theory, communication and control, stability theory.) Take a “clouds for jocks” course on the side from your meteorology department for grins. And apply to a top notch atmospheric science program for grad school.
Filling up the undergrad roster is a problem for the meteorology faculty, but it is not a problem for you. Yet. If you make it to faculty level it may be your problem some day. Try to avoid the land grant colleges that have undergraduate programs in meteorology and this mess will never bite you in the butt.
However, note that this situation is to your advantage early in grad school, as getting a teaching assistantship before you have a funded research program lined up is cake easy at those places.
There was a cat I was not supposed to let out of the bag.
Does anybody think I’m wrong, though?