What is an atmospheric chemist?

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The Earth's atmosphere with Moon

Atmospheric chemists study the Earth’s atmosphere. They often focus on pollution levels, both indoors and outdoors. It’s important to understand what pollution is found in different environments. This knowledge can help us to protect human health and ecosystems, as well as take action on climate change.

In this article, we look at why the role of atmospheric chemist might appeal to you and how to begin your career as an atmospheric chemist.

'Atmospheric chemists help us understand the changing climate so we can tackle the environmental crisis'

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Why should it interest me?

We know that climate change presents a serious threat to life on Earth. It’s a global problem that we need to tackle together, and it’s an issue that countries increasingly agree on. To make meaningful changes to the way the world works, we need evidence to support decision making.

Watch this video from the UN about the importance of tackling climate change rapidly:

The UK’s low carbon and environmental goods and services sector has grown significantly in recent years. Between 2007/8 and 2017/18, the sector grew by 80% across the country and employs over 1.2 million people.

In 2015, the UK government signed up to the sustainable development goals (SDGs) outlined by the United Nations (UN). There are 17 SDGs in total. One of these goals is to ensure healthy lives and promote wellbeing for all at all ages. Another of the goals focuses on sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth. Combatting climate change, creating sustainable and resilient cities and promoting sustainable consumption and production are among the other SDGs.

Governments all over the world are taking action to reduce air pollution. There is a growing need for atmospheric chemists who have the skills to measure pollution levels and predict future trends. If you work in this field, you could influence government policy and help people lead healthier, more sustainable lives.

What does the job involve?

Scientists in the Arctic

You could travel to places like the Arctic or Antarctic to gather


As an atmospheric chemist, you’ll carry out fieldwork to collect data about air pollution and atmospheric conditions in different places. This could involve travelling all over the world. You’ll also spend time using computer programs to analyse and interpret your data. You’ll look for trends and use the data you collect to explain atmospheric changes.

You might explore the atmosphere around urban areas, or you could travel to places like the Arctic or Antarctic to gather data.

Writing reports and research papers is an important part of your job too – this is how you’ll share what you’ve found with other scientists, as well as politicians, government advisors and other stakeholders. You may also give presentations about your findings at conferences or to interested organisations.

It isn’t only about the air we breathe when we’re outside though. Some atmospheric chemists are also researching the quality of the air in our homes and workplaces. Their work will provide valuable information to businesses about how to improve the air quality in their workplaces and to all of us about how we can make our home environments healthier too.

What do I need to become an atmospheric chemist?

If you want to become an atmospheric chemist, you’ll need to study chemistry at A-level (or equivalent). Other science subjects, maths and geography can also be useful. You can then explore university degrees in subjects like chemistry, environmental chemistry and natural sciences. Some courses may even include a specific module on atmospheric chemistry, which will help you develop some of the specialist knowledge you need.

It can be helpful to study for a master’s or even a PhD in atmospheric chemistry once you’ve completed your undergraduate degree. This will help you develop specialist knowledge in the field and develop your research skills.

Rainbow Warrior
You could secure a job with Greenpeace or Friends of the Earth

Get involved with as much fieldwork as you can while you’re studying. You could find opportunities to volunteer on science expeditions, or with charities like Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace.

Many atmospheric chemists work for a university or another research organisation like the British Antarctic Survey. You can find out more about this kind of work through the National Centre for Atmospheric Science.

There are also environmental consultancies that help organisations and branches of government assess air quality. Among the consultancies that operate in the UK are Air Quality Consultants, CERC and Mott Macdonald.

Job facts

  • Typical salary: £35,000
  • Economic contribution: £30.5 billion gross value added to the UK economy by the environmental goods and services sector (2015)
  • Expected growth: Over 7% per year in the low carbon and environmental goods and services sector in the UK
  • Key skills required: Analysis, data collection, report writing

Image: Lead image and Rainbow Warrior via Wikimedia Commons


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