History and Organization of Climatology

Data on the weather has been kept by humans for several thousand years, but the systematic study of such data and theories about how it might predict long-term trends in weather have only been around for roughly one thousand years.

The Chinese were the first to connect observations of ancient plants with predictions about past weather, a field that is today recognized as paleoclimatology.

The practice of systematically studying the weather was pretty much abandoned after Chinese efforts subsided and did not resume again until the late 17th century when Edmund Halley, famous for Halley’s Comet, began keeping track of the trade winds.

Though his records were primarily used for travel and navigation, they nonetheless provided valuable clues about the weather and the practice of mapping large weather patterns became of interest to many scientists, including Benjamin Franklin.

The value of climate data in economic concerns (ship travel, etc.) was what ultimately led to its wider study and to the funding of climate science, a fact that is still true today.

The early forerunners of climate science would probably not recognize the discipline today. Satellites and supercomputers have replaced the approach used by Benjamin Franklin to map the Gulf Stream, which was based around stories of whale navigation and collecting complaints from the postal service.

He observed that it took several weeks longer to reach New York from England than it did to Reach Rhode Island from England, despite the two being only a few dozen miles apart by land. This observation led him to follow the data for a number of different ships crossing the Atlantic and eventually to the discovery of the Gulf Stream.

Today, climatology is considered a subset of atmospheric physics, which is itself a branch of the physical sciences. Climatology is broken into several major sub-fields. Those fields include, but are not limited to:

  • Dendroclimatology – The specific study of tree rings and how they relate to the climate
  • Dynamic Climatology – The study of large-scale patterns and how they can be used to understand global weather
  • Historical Climatology – The study of climate in relation to human history using evidence like direct temperature recording, agricultural practices, or indirect historical evidence
  • Paleoclimatology – Reconstruction of past climates using fossil evidence, ice cores, and tree rings
  • Physical Climatology – The study of physical processes such as evaporation, cloud formation, aerosol dispersal, and more
  • Tornado Climatology – The study of how long-term trends in climate change can affect the strength, location, and frequency of tornados and thunderstorms.
  • Tropical Cyclone Climatology – The study of how climate change affects the strength, locations, and frequency of tropic storms.