What Does It Mean to Be Meteorological?

by Anupa Asokan, AMS Education Program
From my past life as an educator, I’m used to misconceptions. In fact, I welcome them as an opportunity for a more impactful “teachable moment.” In the outdoor setting where I once taught marine science, this was usually centered around sharks, which thanks to sensationalist media and works of art like Jaws, I often had the opportunity to spout out some random fact about how you are more likely to die from a falling coconut and hopefully allay the fears of every child forced to listen to me. Now, working with the AMS Education Program, my teachable moments are focused less on sharks and much more on the word “meteorology.”
My first encounter with the word was as a young child watching my local TV meteorologist. Every evening, Bill Quinlan would tell me about the weather. I vividly remember being in awe of the fact that he would be focused on something out in the ether and yet somehow knowingly point at the correct spot on that magical, wondrous, colorful map behind him. If you, a fellow nerd of all things weather, are reading this, you probably have a similar account from your childhood, but as it turns out, the association between meteorology and the weather isn’t something that every person stumbles upon in their lifetime.
Representing the AMS at various conferences and events, I’ve been shown many alleged “meteorites” from people hoping to confirm the extraterrestrial origin of their favorite rock. Most recently, the AMS Education Program participated in the Science and Engineering Festival in Washington, D.C., last month. This is a truly amazing production and a dream come true for teachers and lovers of science alike, and we were offering a fun, weather-inspired activity: making clouds in a bottle.
The exhibits were separated into sections by topic. The Earth science section had a cool graphic of a cloud, rain, and a lightning bolt. . . but for some reason it didn’t have us. Instead, we were in the space section–“Astronomy and Space Exploration,” to be exact, represented by a picture of a little rocket. Now don’t get me wrong, it is always cool to be near NASA, but where does this disconnect between meteorology and the weather come from? Certainly, the “meteor” in meteorology has always caused some confusion, and  you could say we “fit” in space—forecasting technology and space weather have roots in the study of the atmosphere. On the other hand, meteorology exists if not to tell us the impact of the atmosphere on our day-to-day lives here on Earth.
So there we were, set up in “space” with our bottles and aerosols, ready to create some clouds and conveniently provided with the perfect teachable moment for 325,000 visitors to Science Fest. That is why we were there, after all, because who else is going to teach the world what meteorology really is, but those of us who love everything that it represents, Earthly or otherwise.