87th AMS Annual Meeting

Tuesday, 16 January 2007: 1:30 PM
The south polar front: the poltical context of Antarctic meteorology, 1939-1959
213A (Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center)
Adrian Howkins, Univ. of Texas, Austin, Texas
Until the mid-twentieth century very little was known about the weather or climate in Antarctica. The very hostility of the Antarctic climate – “the home of the blizzard” – put tremendous practical obstacles in the way of meteorological research, or indeed scientific research of any kind. During the 1940s and 1950s scientists from various countries began to make systematic attempts to understand the weather and climate of the Southern Continent, culminating in the International Geophysical Year (IGY) of 1957-58. The driving force behind these attempts to understand the hostile Antarctic environment came not from pure scientific idealism, but rather from political expediency. Between 1939-1959, a dispute took place between Great Britain, Argentina, and Chile over the sovereignty of the Peninsula region of Antarctica. More broadly, Antarctica was in danger of becoming the “South Polar Front” of the Cold War rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union. Science in general, and meteorology in particular, offered rival countries a way of demonstrating their political supremacy.

From this starting point, the paper will examine three ways in which the interaction of science and politics shaped the development of Antarctic meteorology in the 1940s and 1950s:

Firstly, it will look at the Argentine and Chilean research into the influence of Antarctic weather and climate on South America. Scientists and politicians in both Argentina and Chile argued that shared weather systems helped to demonstrate their rights to sovereignty over the region and they used meteorological stations located in Antarctica to support their claims. This paper will ask whether this research brought any practical benefits to the people of Argentina and Chile.

Secondly, the paper will examine the way in which meteorologists applied the ideas of the Bergen school of dynamic meteorology to the Southern Hemisphere. The paper will focus upon the Norwegian-Swedish-British expedition to Queen Maud Land in the late 1940s and early 1950s, which brought British meteorologists into close contact with some of the leading figures of the Bergen school. Dynamic meteorology with its reliance on radiosonde and aircraft readings offered new ways of understanding the “South Polar Front,” and I will briefly chart the developments that took place between 1939 and 1959.

Thirdly, the paper will examine the growing awareness that the weather in Antarctica had a major impact not just upon the neighboring continents but also of the rest of the world. It will look at the ways in which this growing awareness of the global implications of Antarctic meteorology influenced the political moves to internationalize the continent. For example, when India wanted to raise the question of Antarctica in the United Nations General Assembly in 1956, it argued that nuclear testing in Antarctica threatened global atmospheric systems to such an extent that the Indian Monsoon could be adversely affected. The IGY of 1957-58 revealed that weather and climate transcend both nationalism and imperialism, a realization that helped to pave the way for the Antarctic Treaty of 1959.

Given the impact of politics on the development of Antarctic meteorology, the paper will conclude with a brief discussion of the importance of the political context. Did the political disputes of the 1940s and 1950s merely affect the specific way in which Antarctic meteorology developed, or did it have a more profound and lasting impact?

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