Scientist of the Decade Carl Gustav Rossby

Born on December 28, 1898, in Stockholm, Sweden, the meteorologist Carl-Gustav Rossby was one of the most influential atmospheric scientists in the 20th century. After earning his filosofie kandidat (that is, bachelor's degree) at the University of Stockholm in 1918 with specializations in mathematics, mechanics, and astronomy, Rossby left Stockholm and moved to Norway to join the Bergen School. He worked with the Bjerkneses on the development of the polar front and air mass theories until 1921. After two years in Bergen, he realized he did not have the necessary mathematics and physics background to undertake the theoretical work in meteorology that he thought necessary to solve atmospheric problems.

Moving back to Stockholm, Rossby studied mathematical physics at the university until 1925, ultimately earning his filosofie licenciat (a degree between a master's and a doctorate). While finishing his degree, he worked as a forecaster for the Swedish Meteorological and Hydrological Service and took part in oceanographic expeditions. After completing his degree, Rossby was awarded an American-Scandinavian Foundation fellowship through which he traveled to the United States to work with the U.S. Weather Bureau. Within a year, his efforts to introduce Bergen School methods to U.S. meteorology began to significantly influence the way meteorologists considered atmospheric processes.

In addition to completing several scientific articles during his stay with the bureau, Rossby tried to convince officials to incorporate the new Bergen School techniques into their forecasting. He met with great resistance. Most bureau personnel did not have college degrees and were suspicious of this enthusiastic Swede, who was trying to tell them to change their way of doing business. One person at the bureau was attracted to his message: the navy lieutenant Francis W. Reichelderfer. Reichelderfer became a good friend of Rossby's and introduced the Bergen School methods to his navy colleagues. (In 1938, when Reichelderfer became the chief of the Weather Bureau, Rossby joined his team to introduce the latest meteorological theory to forecasters.) While at the bureau, Rossby also made his first attempt at building a rotating tank (the "dishpan") to study atmospheric circulation. Although he was unsuccessful at the time, the apparatus was successfully employed 25 years later while he led the University of Chicago's meteorology department.

Rossby irritated his Weather Bureau hosts and they wanted him out of the way within a year of his arrival. At the same time, the leaders of the Daniel Guggenheim Fund for the Promotion of Aeronautics were looking for an energetic meteorologist to help them establish a "model airway" along the West Coast of the United States. Rossby took on the job, setting up weather stations that took observations and provided aviation forecasts for pilots flying from Los Angeles to Seattle. After completing this task, he was tapped to organize, with Guggenheim funds, the new meteorology program at MIT—the first graduate program in the nation.

Rossby, who was always looking for a way to promote modern meteorology in the United States, attracted the best students in the country and sent them out to advance both research and practice further. They filled positions at the Weather Bureau, spent time in Norway with the Bergen School, and helped to establish a meteorology program at New York University.

After 10 years of building the MIT program and producing his famous papers on the movement of long waves in the upper-level westerlies, including his 1940 paper "Planetary Flow Patterns in the Atmosphere," he accepted Reichelderfer's invitation to pull the Weather Bureau into the modern meteorological era. Rossby's time at the bureau was short. The opportunity to develop yet another meteorology department, this one at the University of Chicago, called. While at Chicago he surrounded himself yet again with an incredible group of talented young scientists. Organizing the largest meteorological training program in history for the war effort, he personally recruited a number of distinguished meteorologists who executed his vision of a rigorous theoretical

Carl-Gustav Rossby, seen here in 1926, used this "dishpan" to study atmospheric motion. (NOAA Photo Library)

education combined with practical forecasting experience. Working at the highest levels of government, he arranged for teams of these scientists to travel throughout the world to analyze the meteorological needs of the military services and offer solutions to their atmospheric problems.

As the war came to a close, Rossby recognized that the meteorological community had a unique opportunity to strengthen the discipline's scientific advances if it could retain at least some of the thousands of new meteorologists trained during the war. Becoming the president of the American Meteorological Society, he transformed it from an organization that had been composed of both amateurs and professionals into a wholly professional society equivalent to those representing engineering and other sciences. Concerned that there was no peer-reviewed journal for publishing meteorological research, he established the Journal of Meteorology. Rossby was also influential in a number of research projects, most notably the Meteorology Project at the Institute for Advanced Study that developed numerical weather prediction techniques.

Although he had become a naturalized American citizen, Rossby returned to Sweden to help the government reorganize its meteorological research, services, and education; he established his third meteorology department, the International Meteorological Institute at the University of Stockholm, Sweden. This unique research and educational organization drew scientists from both the West and from behind the iron curtain—a rarity in a time of cold war tensions. In Stockholm, he founded another scientific journal (Tellus) and created the first numerical weather prediction center in Europe. Turning his attention to atmospheric chemistry, he was a leader in using the radioactive isotopes left over from nuclear tests as an aid to understanding atmospheric circulation.

Carl-Gustav Rossby was not only personally productive, he was the father of uncounted "academic children," who carried his message of meteorological theory throughout the world. A prodigious worker, Rossby was less careful about his health than about his atmospheric studies. In 1957, he died of a heart attack while in Stockholm.


iles 6

d titu 4 Alt 3

Developing thunderstorm, cumulus stage

No rain

© Infobase Publishing

Mature thunderstorm

Dissipating thunderstorm ii t + i


Light rain

-p -60°F (-51 °C) ---36°F(-38°C) l--15°F(-26°C)

Vertical air movement, cloud behavior, and types of precipitation change throughout the life cycle of a thunderstorm.

dangerous. In the third, or dissipating, stage the updraft disappears; dry air is pulled in from outside the cloud, causing the cloud to evaporate; and sometimes only the anvil top remains.

Surface heating does contribute to thunderstorm development, but these small-scale systems will not grow to large heights unless there is air converging from all sides into the area of surface heating, and air diverging (or moving out of) the top of the cloud. In mountainous areas, the mechanical lifting of warm, moist air over the mountains often contributes to the building of large thunderstorms. In the United States, one of the most common areas for severe thunderstorm development is the Florida peninsula. Not only is there significant afternoon heating combined with lots of available moisture, but as the air rises, it pulls in more moist air from coastal regions. The thunderstorms peak out late in the afternoon and heavy downpours follow.

Radar improvements, combined with the use of specialized satellite sensors and computer models, have allowed meteorologists to gain additional knowledge of thunderstorm mechanics and have given forecasters the tools they need to guide airplanes around these dangerous systems. Research continues on the most complex of these thunderstorm systems.

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