Climatology is the study of climate and how it changes over time. This science helps people better understand the atmospheric conditions that cause weather patterns and temperature changes over time.


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Anthropology, Conservation, Earth Science, Climatology


Antarctic Ice Core

A core is extracted from the ice sheet to learn what the area's (near McMurdo Station, Antarctica) climate was like in the past.

Photograph by David Boyer
A core is extracted from the ice sheet to learn what the area's (near McMurdo Station, Antarctica) climate was like in the past.

Climatology is the study of the atmosphere and weather patterns over time. This field of science focuses on recording and analyzing weather patterns throughout the world and understanding the atmospheric conditions that cause them. It is sometimes confused with meteorology, which is the study of weather and weather forecasting. However, climatology is mainly focused on the natural and artificial forces that influence long-term weather patterns. Scientists who specialize in this field are called climatologists.

The first studies of climate can be traced back to ancient Greece, but climate science as it is now known did not emerge until the advent of the industrial age in the nineteenth century. The science of climatology grew as scientists became interested in understanding weather patterns. In recent times, climatologists have increasingly focused their research on the changes in Earth’s climate that have occurred since the industrial age. Earth has been growing warmer and warmer as human industry has expanded and released more carbon into the atmosphere. This effect, called global warming, is a particularly important object of study for climatologists. By studying global warming, climatologists can better understand and predict the long-term impact of human-caused climate change.

Climatologists seek to understand three main aspects of climate. The first aspect is the weather patterns that govern normal conditions in different regions throughout the world. Secondly, climate scientists try to understand the relationship between different aspects of weather such as temperature and sunlight. The third aspect of climate that climatologists investigate is the way that weather changes over time. Results from this type of research have shown that human activities are affecting Earth’s overall climate, such as with increased global temperatures. As a result, climatologists also study human causes of climate change; they are particularly interested in activities that release greenhouse gases and their link to global warming.

Additionally, climatologists look at natural changes in air and ocean currents like El Niño and La Niña, which are phases in a fluctuating cycle of air and ocean temperature over the Pacific Ocean. The oscillation between the warm El Niño and the cold La Niña phases affect climates around the world. These ocean current patterns result in changes in the normal difference between atmospheric and ocean temperatures. Scientists also consider the effects that solar activity and variations in solar energy have on climate over time. Some natural events can contribute to global warming, such as volcanic eruptions, which release large amounts of ash and other substances into the atmosphere. Although these events shade Earth from solar radiation by releasing large amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, those same greenhouse gases contribute to global warming. However, much of the climate change that climatologists study is tied to human activity, particularly humans’ use of fossil fuels, which are the main contributor to greenhouse gases in the atmosphere today. Studying the impact of these gases allows scientists to understand not only how Earth’s climate has changed as a result of human activity, but also how it might continue to change if humans continue to release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

Media Credits

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Tyson Brown, National Geographic Society
National Geographic Society
Production Managers
Gina Borgia, National Geographic Society
Jeanna Sullivan, National Geographic Society
Program Specialists
Sarah Appleton, National Geographic Society, National Geographic Society
Margot Willis, National Geographic Society
Clint Parks
Roza Kavak
Last Updated

October 19, 2023

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