I Observer Weather, Not Space

2012-08-06 23:05:28.000 – Ryan Knapp,  Weather Observer/Meteorologist

I like to look at this but I don’t ‘observe’ it.

It always seems that when the topic of space hits the news, my friends and parts of my family along with a small percentage of the general public, forget or mix up what I have a degree in and start asking me space related questions. And with space news hitting the headlines once again this week with NASA’s Mars rover ‘Curiosity’ landing and the Perseids meteor shower peaking this Saturday (August 11th), the questions have already begun. I assume people think I study or know about space because they see the word ‘Observatory’ in my employers name (Mount Washington Observatory) along with the fact that I am located on a mount top and have the word ‘meteor’ in my job title and degree (meteorologist). Unfortunately, assuming I study space because of these three reasons would be an incorrect assumption. So, let me clear some things up to hopefully limit the amount of misconceptions people might have about who we are and what I do.

While the Mount Washington Observatory does have ‘Observatory’ in its name and we are located on a summit, what we’re observing is the weather and not ‘outer space’ like other observatories you may be familiar with. So while our heads are tilted upwards to examine the skies, our vision is ‘limited’ to the lower limits of Earth’s atmosphere and nothing beyond that. While we all enjoy marveling at the celestial bodies above us, we’re just like most of you, and have to use books, maps, smartphone apps, etc. to point out what we are looking at. We do not have a telescope up here apart from a $20 kids ‘scope we got from WalMart (and I don’t even think that is still up here now that I think about it). We do not have some sort of inside track with NASA or any other government agency nor are we holding any secrets or information about what’s flying around or is suspended in the depths of space. We are just a small, member supported, non-profit weather observatory that just happens to be located on a summit. So, if you ask us (or more importantly, me) about stars, planets, moons, UFO’s (no joke), etc, we will likely answer your questions, but only after we Google the answers we need for you since we are just as clueless and curious as most of you are on the topic of space.

But several people might follow up by saying something along the lines of ‘You don’t study the stars? But, aren’t you a meteorologist? Don’t you study the meteors/stars?’ Nope! Not at all. But, I don’t blame people’s assumption of this. If a psychologist usually studies psychology, a biologist usually studies biology, and a chemist studies chemistry, with this methodology a meteorologist should study meteors. But this is one of those times where the methodology is not directly correct. After digging around the internet for the etymology on the word meteorology, I did find that its Greek origins had a loose tie to the study of ‘space’ and things falling from it, but, over the years the definition has been whittled down to the current definition which is (according to dictionary.com):

1. The science of dealing with the atmosphere and its phenomena, including weather and climate.
2. The atmospheric conditions and weather of an area.

While I know it could be argued that since meteorites interact with the atmosphere, it is part of our realm of knowledge. And while some meteorologists might know a bit about space and meteors (or meteorites), most of us do not have any formal training in matters of space or the debris falling from it. Instead, the person you might want to talk to is someone in the field astronomy or meteoritics, the science that deals with meteors (and the individuals studying in this field are called a meteoriticist, NOT meteorologists). So, to my friends, family, and anyone else, a meteorologist (which is what many of us working here are) is someone who studies weather (which is what our observatory records) while a meteoriticist (which none of us are) is someone who studies meteorites, and an astronomer (which none of us are) is someone who studies celestial objects, space, and the physical universe as a whole.


Ryan Knapp,  Weather Observer/Meteorologist

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