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Meteorology degree blows into College of Charleston

Ashley Heffernan
  • Ashley Heffernan
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College of Charleston meteorology student Trevor Gibbs practices giving a weather forecast off-air in the Live 5 News studios. (Photo/Provided)

Trevor Gibbs was 7 years old in 2004 when Hurricane Gaston made landfall near Charleston as a Category 1 storm.

“I didn’t have school. So I was just at home, and I remember looking out the window, and it was really, really windy, obviously, and I just thought it was really cool to watch,” Gibbs said. “I wanted to learn more about it.”

Gibbs has been interested in weather, especially hurricanes, ever since.

Job outlook for atmospheric scientists, including meteorologists

Atmospheric scientists study the weather and climate, and how those conditions affect human activity and the earth in general. They may develop forecasts, collect and compile data from the field, assist in the development of new data collection instruments or advise clients on risks or opportunities caused by weather events and climate change.

  • 2015 median pay: $89,820 per year, or $43.18 per hour
  • Typical entry-level education: Bachelor’s degree
  • Number of jobs in 2014: 11,800
  • Job outlook for 2014-2024: 9% growth (faster than average)
  • Employment change for 2014-2024: 1,100

Industries that employed atmospheric scientists, including meteorologists, in 2014:

  • Professional, scientific and technical services: 40%
  • Federal government: 26%
  • Colleges, universities and professional schools: 20%
  • Television broadcasting: 6%

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

When it was time for Gibbs to enroll in college last year, no university in the state offered a bachelor’s degree in meteorology, so Gibbs chose Clemson University for its geology program. His plan was to graduate from there and then go out of state for a master’s degree in meteorology.

After Gibbs spent a year at Clemson, his plan changed. The College of Charleston launched a bachelor’s degree in meteorology this semester, and Gibbs transferred in, becoming one of the first to start the new program.

He chose a concentration in operational meteorology, which he hopes will help him land a job forecasting the weather on television. The other concentration the college now offers is in atmospheric physics, which prepares students for graduate studies in atmospheric science research and climate change.

Gabriel Williams, an assistant professor of atmospheric physics at CofC, said the college launched the new major for two main reasons: Charleston’s unique weather and the lack of meteorology education in the state.

Charleston sees a variety of weather phenomena, Williams said, such as the sea breeze off the coast, flooding issues downtown, severe thunderstorms, hurricanes, ice storms and earthquakes.

“A lot of people who live in Charleston just love the actual weather and studying weather patterns here, particularly because of where we’re located,” he said.

The best students from South Carolina have been going to Georgia and North Carolina to study meteorology, though, Williams said. 

“In one sense, there’s public interest, but there’s also local interest among the weather stations here of how they’re going to replace their operational forecasters,” he said. “Why outsource from out of state when you can produce in state?”

Course work

The College of Charleston is now one of three schools in the country with an undergraduate concentration in atmospheric physics, Williams said; the other two are in New Mexico and Michigan.

“When we think about meteorology, most people think only of forecasting,” he said. “But it’s actually a broader field.”

Students in the program will take courses on climate, which will focus on the various ways the atmosphere and global climate are impacted; large-scale and small-scale forecasting; and cloud physics, which will focus on the formation and forecasting of precipitation. Other courses could include hydrogeology, thermal physics, fluid mechanics and synoptic meteorology.

Williams said the new meteorology program currently comprises four faculty members teaching about a dozen courses. Students will also take classes from the physics, mathematics and communications departments. About five students are currently classified as meteorology majors, he said, and as more students are added, more faculty will be as well.

Job outlook

After graduating, students can expect to continue on to graduate school or look for a job as a meteorologist. Graduates don’t have to work as a meteorologist at a television news station, though.

Trevor Gibbs, a student in the College of Charleston’s new meteorology program, poses with Weather Channel meteorologist Mike Bettes in downtown Charleston. (Photo/Provided)“Most of the jobs right now that are growing in the program are almost solely associated with private industry, and the major industries that are growing are insurance as well as offshore companies,” Williams said.

Insurance companies hire meteorologists to help determine insurance rates and the probability of weather damage, and oil companies hire meteorologists to help determine offshore weather patterns for their rigs, he said.

Air quality experts are teaming up with meteorologists or have some sort of meteorology background themselves to determine what pollutants are in the air. And many meteorologists are finding private consulting work, Williams said.

“There are lots of corporate farmers, for instance, that rely upon meteorologists to get them very short-term, local forecasts for the sake of their own crop development,” he said. Many of those farmers are located in the Midwest, however, and not in South Carolina, according to Williams.

“You can make a very good salary and a very stable living if you are a certified meteorologist who does consulting work, because virtually everyone is asking for either local forecasts for regions or looking at local climate for a particular region because that will influence business decisions in the future,” he said.

Williams said demand for meteorologists is growing in the Lowcountry because several weather stations have an aging workforce whose retirements will leave empty positions.

“But there’s also a sense of — as this place has grown, so has the need for more people to do this work,” he said.

Other additions at CofC

This semester, the College of Charleston also added a minor in health care and medical services management; undergraduate concentrations in digital media and sustainable urbanism; a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing; and, for those in education programs, graduate-level concentrations in curriculum and instruction, and mathematics and statistics, according to a news release.

“We are excited to be offering these new programs,” Lynn Cherry, associate provost for curriculum and institutional resources at the college, said in the news release. “They not only reflect the evolving nature of the disciplines that we teach here, but, collectively, they demonstrate that the college is responsive to the growing and changing needs of our students, the community and the marketplace.”

This story originally appeared in the Oct. 17, 2016, print edition of the Charleston Regional Business Journal.

Reach Ashley Heffernan at 843-849-3144.

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