Climatology is one of the most important branches of science – after all, we’re in a lot of trouble if we don’t have a climate suitable for human life! In this guide, you’ll learn what Climatology is, why it matters to us, and the role it will play in the future of global society.
What Is Climatology?
As the name suggests, Climatology is the study of climates. While it’s technically applicable to other planets (such as Venus’ not-at-all-boring weather beneath its clouds), most Climatology focuses on our home planet.
In this discipline, a “climate” is the average weather conditions for a specific area, averaged over a period. Climatology itself is broken down into several other subjects, and most climate scientists spend their careers in a single field. Notable fields include the following.
This field focuses on understanding the climates of the past. By examining deep ice cores and tree rings, we can get a better understanding of what the weather during historical times was like and how it differs from today’s climate.
The sad truth is that most records of weather are recent projects. We don’t have enough information on the exact climate of the past, so Paleoclimatology focuses on finding that information. In many ways, this field supports the rest of Climatology – we’re not going to go as far as saying it’s the single most important branch, but it is vital to Climatology as a whole.
This is similar to Paleoclimatology, but it’s explicitly focused on understanding the frequency of hurricanes over the years. By gaining a better understanding of the frequency and power of such major storms, governments in vulnerable areas can plan and determine how many resources they need to make available for search and rescue, reconstruction, and other post-disaster responses.
This branch of Climatology focuses specifically on how it’s related to known human history – thus, thus, it only covers the past few thousand years. By studying weather and comparing it to details like the spread of populations and disease, we can gain a better understanding of what to expect as the environment continues to change over time.
A Brief history of climatology
Climatology had existed as a formal science since at least 400 B.C.E. when Hippocrates published On Airs, Water, and Places. However, the field saw limited activity for almost 2000 years because we didn’t have the tools to measure climate on a full scale or the ability to deliver news and predictions fast enough to make a difference.
This all changed in 1686 when Edmon Halley – the second Astronomer Royal in Britain – published a map of trade winds. This was a significant boon for ship captains who wanted a better understanding of how to safely get back on course after problems and helped to speed up trade drastically.
The next significant evolution in the field came from the works of Benjamin Franklin, who mapped the Gulf Stream and its passage across the Atlantic Ocean. As with many scientific endeavors of the time, there was a practical reason for this study. Franklin wanted to improve the efficiency of sending mail back to Europe, and the map of the Gulf Stream soon became a fundamental part of that.
However, despite the important early contributions, Climatology didn’t become a physical science until Helmut Landsberg got involved in 1941. Landsberg was the first to apply statistical analysis and introduced the broader scientific community to it with his book Physical Climatology. He is now one of the most influential Climatologists in history.
Why Climatology Matters
In recent years, Climatology has pivoted from understanding the past to predicting the future – and most of what it suggests is alarming. Rising global temperatures are predicted to lead to higher sea levels, more severe hurricanes, the spread of disease, and numerous other international challenges.
In response to this predicted threat, most nations of the world have come together to try and slow (or, better, reverse) the effects of climate change. Climatology is helping by focusing attention on what affects the climate the most – when we have that information, we can find more efficient ways of addressing climate change.
Predictive sciences are one of the most important fields of study because of the impact they’ll have on life around the world. Gathering information about the past is important, but most information is only valuable to the extent we can use it.
Much of climatology relies on Climate Models, which are designed to account for as much information as possible when predicting the future effects of the climate. Most of these models emphasize comparing the shortwave radiation reaching the Earth with the longwave radiation leaving it.
The gain and loss of energy occur on a constant basis. When the planet gains more energy than it’s losing, it heats up – this is why daytime is warmer than nighttime. The reverse is also true – when the planet loses more energy than it gains, things cool down.
The primary focus of climate models in recent years involves the effects of greenhouse gas on this cycle of temperatures. Most current predictions suggest that an increase in greenhouse gases leads to a slower loss of heat throughout the atmosphere. In turn, that has the effect of increasing the average temperature.
In short, “more stuff in the atmosphere is bad.” However, things aren’t quite as bad as some sensationalist news stories would like you to believe.
The Reality Of Climate Change
As humans, we have an incredible capacity for adapting to different environments. If coastal areas become too difficult to live in, chances are most people will move a comfortable distance inland and resume their lives. This won’t be without its costs, but most effects of climate only occur over decades, so there’s plenty of time.
The exception to this is travel caused by natural disasters. A particularly good example of this is the departure of Puerto Ricans – who are American citizens – from their traditional island home after Hurricane Maria struck the island in 2017. This dispersal is still ongoing, but studies estimate that almost half a million people (of the island’s ~3.3 million population) are likely to leave as a
the direct consequence of that disaster.
Notably, many of the people leaving are younger families with children, which makes it even harder for the island to sustain a viable population. Almost five hundred schools are expected to close in the next few years, and this has a ripple effect on the local economy.
Another example of the effects of climate on populations in New Orleans, especially after Hurricane Katrina hit it in 2005. The city lost more than 50% of its population in the aftermath of that disaster, though it has since rebounded to about 80% of the pre-Katrina population level.
In short: It takes time for us to leave a damaged area, and we usually return. This is why you should take the many breathless reports about the destruction of livable regions with a grain of salt. Yes, climate change can (and will) destroy some currently-inhabited areas, and we may lose some of these places permanently. However, humanity will find other places to live.
That said, climate change is still a real, serious problem for the world. It is. In fact, in a report discussed by National Geographic, it’s estimated that climate change costs the US economy hundreds of billions of dollars each year – and that price tag is going up.
If that sounds like too much money, consider the cost of housing, then consider that Hurricane Katrina destroyed over 800,000 housing units. Not all of these were individual houses, but Katrina still caused an estimated $81 billion in damage all by itself, with nearly twice that in costs to take care of things afterward. That’s one major hurricane, and we’ve had quite a few of those in recent years.
The good news is that most solutions for climate change provide real savings for society – so even if you aren’t sure of the climate models and suspect they’re wrong, there are ways to financially benefit from things designed to help the climate.
That may sound a little cynical, but remember that cost is one of the significant factors nations use when deciding policy. If something feels too expensive now, countries may not act until it’s too late. On the other hand, if a proposed policy lowers costs and proves to be a sound investment, most nations are willing to invest as much as necessary.
Congratulations! You’ve reached the end of this article, and you’re now familiar with the basics of Climatology. We talked about what it is, how it got started, and how it’s currently affecting the world. If you’d like to learn more about the climate, visit our home page.