Sverdrup Harald Ulrik 18881957

HARALD ULRIK SVERDRUP is a Norwegian meteorologist and oceanographer known for his studies of the physics, chemistry, and biology of the oceans and considered as the founding father of modern physical oceanography. Sverdrup explained the equatorial countercurrents and helped develop the method of predicting surf and breakers. A unit of water flow in the oceans was named after him by oceanographic researchers: 1 sverdrup (Sv) is equal to the transport of 1 million cubic meters of water per second. The American Meteorological Society honored him with the Sverdrup Gold Medal, which recognizes researchers for outstanding contributions to the scientific knowledge of interactions between the oceans and the atmosphere.

Sverdrup was born on November 15, 1888, in Sogndal, Sogn, Norway, into an ancient and respected family of university lecturers, lawyers, politicians, and Lutheran ministers. His father Johan was a teacher and, following the family tradition, became a Lutheran minister of the State Church of Norway. In 1894, his father became minister in the island district of Solund, about 40 mi. (64 km.) north of Bergen, and then moved to Rennso near Stavanger. In 1908, he became professor of church history in Oslo. Because of his father's different jobs, Sverdrup spent much of his boyhood in various sites in western Norway and was taught by governesses until he was 14 years old. At that age, he went to school in Stavanger. During his adolescence, Sverdrup experienced conflicts between his interest in natural science and the religious background of his family. It was particularly difficult for him to reconcile the concept of evolution with his religious upbringing.


As he was not aware of the possibility to study science at university, he first opted for the classical curriculum in 1903. Within this field, his major interest became astronomy. Sverdrup left the gymnasium with honors and spent a year in Oslo preparing for university preliminary examinations. Military service was compulsory at the time, so he decided to combine it with his scientific education, enrolling at the Norwegian Academy of War. This training was combined with the study of physics and mathematics. The physical training that he received while at the academy was extremely useful for his survival during his later long arctic expeditions.

When Sverdrup entered university, he decided to major in astronomy. In 1911, he was offered an assis-tantship with Professor Vilhelm Bjerknes, the preeminent Norwegian meteorologist and founder of the Bergen School, which allowed him to enter one of the brightest scientific circles in the country. The Bergen School was supported by an annual grant that Bjerknes received from the Carnegie Institution of Washington almost from its founding. Sverdrup initially planned to continue his research in astronomy, but he became increasingly interested in meteorology and oceanography and thus changed his major. When, in 1912, Bjerknes went to Germany to work at the University of Leipzig as professor and director of the new Geophysical Institute, Sverdrup followed him, remaining in Germany from January 1913 to August 1917. He also continued his thesis for the University of Oslo and received his doctorate in June 1917 on a published paper on the North Atlantic trade winds.

career highlights

In July 1918, Sverdrup joined Roal Amundsen's expedition in the Arctic, on the Maud, as a chief scientist. Although the planned duration of the expedition was from three to four years, it lasted for seven and a half years. Sverdrup did not return to Norway until December 22, 1925. He was enthusiastic about the experience and defined the most interesting period as the eight months between 1919 and 1920 spent in Siberia, living with nomadic reindeer herders, the Chukchi. Sverdrup's arctic expedition was interrupted for six months between 1921 and 1922, when the meteorologist had the chance of spending a profitable period of time at the Carnegie Institution. From the arctic expedition, Sverdrup gained better understanding of the basic physical oceanography of currents. He argued that the effect of the Earth's rotation, a fundamental aspect of the dynamics of the oceans, is best observed in the polar regions, because it reaches its greatest level there. On his return to Norway, Sver-drup married Gudrun Bronn Vaumund.

By 1926, Sverdrup was a well-established scientific researcher and was offered the chair of meteorology at Bergen, which had been previously held by Bjerknes. The Carnegie Institution had also offered Sverdrup a permanent position twice, but the Norwegian scientist refused the American offer and took up the position at Bergen. In this capacity, Sverdrup edited the scientific report of the Maud. He also continued to collaborate with the Carnegie Institution. In 1931, he led the scientific group in the Wilkins-Ellsworth North Polar Submarine Expedition, during which valuable information was gathered despite its failure to achieve the chief goal of the expedition, the submarine exploration of the Arctic in the Nautilus.

In 1936, Sverdrup accepted the position of director of the Scripps Institute of Oceanography in La Jolla, at the University of California, remaining there for almost 12 years. During his tenure as director, Sverdrup expanded the Scripps Institute, making it an institute with a research program, and developing closer ties between Scripps and the University of California, Los Angeles. During World War II, Sverdrup was involved in the U.S. war effort, although he did not directly work for the University of California Division of War Research. He worked on problems related to forecasting surf conditions for military beachhead assaults. His current and wave forecasting methods were applied by military weathermen to predict landing conditions for Allied invasions.

Sverdrup was a central figure in the postwar development of oceanography and allied sciences. He served on many scientific committees after the war, and his contributions to science were increasingly recognized. He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1945. He joined the Executive Committee of the American Geophysical Union in 1945 and presided over the American Geophysical Union Oceanography Section. In 1946, he became president of the International Association of Physical Oceanography. He chaired the Division of Oceanography and Meteorology at the 1946 Pacific Science Conference. Sverdrup returned to Norway in 1948, where he worked as a professor of geophysics at the University of Oslo until his death on August 21, 1957.

SEE ALSo: History of Climatology; Oceanography.

BIBLioGRAPHY. William A. Nierenberg, "Harald Ulrik Sverdrup," in Biographical Memoirs (National Academy of Science), hsverdrup.html.

Luca Prono University of Nottingham

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