Eighth Presidential History Symposium


How polar exploration, funded by sales of postage stamps and newspapers, brought frontal analysis to the United States

Roger D. Turner, Univ. of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA

The development of meteorology in the 20th century was shaped by geopolitics, particularly changing conceptions about what parts of the globe were valuable. In the wake of World War I, the Poles re-emerged as a focus of international interest. Many aviators believed that aircraft would soon wing over Arctic great circle routes, connecting the continents for commerce (and potentially for strategic bombing). The spectacular polar flights of Roald Amundsen, Richard Byrd, George Hubert Wilkins and others trumpeted the revolutionary capability of aircraft during the 1920s. Zeppelin flights, sometimes funded mainly through sales of collectible postage stamps and newspaper coverage, stimulated both the public and military imagination.

These impressive flights depended upon the weather knowledge provided by a small group of mostly Scandinavian meteorologists who had grown up in the Arctic and trained under Vilhelm Bjerknes in Bergen, Norway. Men like Harald Sverdrup, Sverre Petterssen, Finn Malmgren and Jorgen Holmboe made ideal additions to Arctic exploring parties, skilled as skiers and outdoorsmen as well as trained scientists. For Bergen School meteorologists, the Arctic was the source of the Polar Front, a key manifestation of the general circulation of the atmosphere. The Poles represented a special place for understanding the general circulation, and therefore were essential to predicting weather conditions across the globe.

In part due to the publicity generated by polar exploration, during the 1930s, weather bureaus, airlines and militaries adopted the Bergen School's theories of air masses and fronts. Those men of the Bergen School who survived their Arctic expeditions took leading faculty positions at institutions like UCLA, MIT, and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

Recorded presentation

Session 1, Environmental History and the History of Atmospheric Sciences
Wednesday, 20 January 2010, 8:30 AM-10:30 PM, B203

Previous paper  Next paper

Browse or search entire meeting

AMS Home Page