Norwegian Methods in the United States

The U.S. Weather Bureau had proved extremely resistant to the Bergen School methods that swept European meteorology in the 1920s. The Swedish meteorologist Carl-Gustav Rossby, trained at the Bergen School and awarded a Scandinavian-American Association fellowship, had arrived in the United States in 1926 to work at the bureau. Rossby tried to convince bureau forecasters to use the frontal and air mass analysis techniques developed by the Bjerkneses; he so irritated bureau leaders with his ideas that they forced him to leave.

There is little doubt that some members of the bureau were just too attached to their ways of operating to see the usefulness of Bergen School methods. Others were probably resentful that Europeans were trying to tell them how to make forecasts in the United States. The primary reason that the Bergen School methods were not immediately accepted was the significant difficulty of applying polar front and air mass analysis methods in a country as large as the United States. Unlike densely populated European countries, the United States had large expanses where no one lived. West of the Mississippi River, large tracts of land contained only a few hardy farmers, ranchers, or lumbermen. Even if they could have reported weather data back to Weather Bureau headquarters for inclusion in the daily map analysis and subsequent forecast for the next day, the observations would have been so widely spaced as to be meaningless.


Birth Intensification

Maturity Death


Winds aloft

A A A A Cold front

Center of lowest

▲ «A «A Occluded front

surface pressure

Cloud formation

© Infobase Publishing

© Infobase Publishing

In this series of drawings, the cyclone starts to develop, intensifies, begins to form a closed circulation aloft, and then, with its energy cut off, slowly dies.

Recall that Jacob Bjerknes was able to create his theory of frontal development in large part because of the closely spaced observation stations hugging the Norwegian coastline. He was able to get additional observations from the United Kingdom, Germany, and Denmark—observations that taken together gave him a good "snapshot" of the current weather conditions. The cost of implementing such an observational network in the United States would have been huge. The cash-strapped Weather Bureau had neither the money nor the manpower to establish and maintain the number of surface and upper-air stations that would allow full implementation of Norwegian methods. Weather Bureau forecasters continued to cling to their old, ineffective techniques.

This condition continued into the early 1930s when two embarrassing incidents served as the catalyst for change at the Weather Bureau. The first came about when the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) launched a formal complaint against the Weather Bureau in 1932. The civil engineers, involved in building roads, bridges, and dams, were clamoring for special climatological data in a format that would be easiest for them to use. The Weather Bureau was happy to provide the information to the engineers—just as it was happy to provide the data to anyone who asked—but they did not have the time or the manpower to arrange the data in a way that was most useful to the engineers. After several months of investigations, the ASCE published a nasty condemnation of the Weather Bureau, accusing its leaders of incompetence and proclaiming its methods to be unscientific and behind the times. In making recommendations for "fixing" the Weather Bureau, the engineers suggested that the chief of the Weather Bureau be replaced by a stronger leader—one who was not a meteorologist.

The second occurred on April 4, 1933, when the navy airship USS Akron (ZRS-4) crashed into a raging sea off the coast of New England during a violent storm. All 73 people aboard died, including the navy's chief of the Bureau of Aeronautics. During the investigation that followed, the navy charged that the Weather Bureau's bad forecast had endangered Akron. Had the pilots received an accurate weather forecast, Akron would not have taken off and its passengers and flight crew would not have perished. So serious was this accident that President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who had been inaugurated for his first term in office just a few weeks before, took a personal interest in addressing the problem. What could be done about the Weather Bureau?

President Roosevelt ultimately appointed a group of distinguished scientists to form the Science Advisory Board (SAB). The SAB, which was affiliated with the premier scientific organization in the country—the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C.—was directed to examine the complaints of the engineers, analyze the results of the Akron investigation, and make a formal recommendation for improvements. Within a few months, the board issued its first report. The board found that the engineers' complaints were without merit. The Weather Bureau was not obligated to make their work easy for them. However, the Akron crash might have been prevented if they had used the Norwegian techniques. To aid the Weather Bureau in the introduction of those techniques, it needed to establish additional surface and upper-air stations that would take observations four times instead of just two a day. Since

no Weather Bureau meteorologists had training in the Norwegian techniques, the board recommended the bureau hire people who had. Three such meteorologists had just received their Ph.D. from MIT's graduate program, and they were hired to train a small group of people at the Weather Bureau who would, in turn, train others.

By 1935, training was under way. Norwegian methods were not fully integrated into the Weather Bureau's operations until the end of the decade. The bureau's training program would later extend to the military services and have a major impact on the provision of weather services during World War II.

The additional upper-air observations made possible by improved radiosonde equipment in the thirties provided an extensive collection of new data for both meteorologists and climatologists. The meteorologists could use the data as they came in, but climatologists needed to wait until the data could be compiled and averaged with previously collected pressure, temperature, and wind velocities for higher altitudes. Compiling climatological data was a tedious, labor-intensive job, and the U.S. Weather Bureau rarely had sufficient employees to process all of the data arriving monthly in their climatology division. The fiscal cutbacks of the Great Depression had significantly reduced the bureau's manning levels, leaving it unable to cope with current data, much less the accumulated backlog. This situation could have worsened as the Depression dragged on. Instead, the bureau was able to make use of recently enacted federal programs that were putting unemployed people to work. Out of the depths of the Great Depression, the Weather Bureau was able to process valuable climatological data with the help of a recently acquired technology: card-reading machines.

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