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Breakdown: Meteorologists don’t study meteors, so why the name?

Published: Nov. 1, 2021 at 12:42 PM CDT|Updated: Nov. 1, 2021 at 1:21 PM CDT
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - The study of weather and the Earth’s atmosphere is called Meteorology. But where does the meteor-part stem from?

The term Meteorology has quite the history deriving from the Greek word meteoron, which more or less meant “something in the sky.”

Around 340 BC, the famous philosopher Aristotle wrote a treatise called Meteorologica, a work covering the totality of that era’s knowledge of weather and climate. In Aristotle’s time, anything that was suspended in or fell from the sky was called a “meteor,” including rain, snow, hail, rainbows and meteoroids. Therefore, meteorology technically does study “meteors.”

Meteorologists study many phenomena that include the word meteor, although these terms are not typically used in common speech. For example:

  • Clouds, fog, snow crystals, rain drops and so on are all hydrometeors (literally water in the air).
  • Suspended dust, sand, soil, soot, salt crystals and other dry particulates are known as lithometeors.
  • Lightning is called an electrometeor.
  • Phenomena such as rainbows, halos, glories, mirages, coronae and other such atmospheric displays are photometeors.

So even though we don’t study the one meteor we most commonly know streaking across our skies, the name Meteorology theoretically fits.

NOTE: Aristotle’s Meteorologica included shooting stars or “meteors” in his writings which is now separated into astronomy. A meteor (according to astronomy) is a small body of matter that is actively burning in our atmosphere (shooting star) . A meteorite is what is left of a meteor when it hits earth and a meteoroid is a small ‘body’ moving outside of our solar system that hasn’t become a meteor yet.

Since the vast majority of Aristotle’s work dealt with weather, over time, the term “meteorology” came to be used when referring to the science of weather and atmospheric studies, and the study of meteoroids became part of astronomy. Thus, in the context of meteorology’s contemporary definition, a “meteorologist” refers to a scientist who studies weather and the Earth’s atmosphere, not meteors.

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