The Scandinavian Tag-Team

Providers of atmospheric reality to numerical weather prediction efforts in the United States (1948-1955)


  • Kristine C. Harper Oregon State University


In late 1945, the distinguished mathematician John von Neumann needed a suitably difficult scientific problem amenable to a numerical solution to showcase the capabilities of his proposed computer. Although there were numerous candidates from the physical sciences, von Neumann settled on the weather prediction problem. In their brief accounts of the development of numerical weather prediction, William Aspray’s John von Neumann and the Origins of Modern Computing and Frederik Nebeker’s Calculating the Weather: Meteorology in the 20th Century give von Neumann primary credit for starting and leading the Meteorology Project at the Institute for Advanced Study. Given significantly less credit are Carl-Gustav Rossby, Jule Charney, and a series of Scandinavian meteorologists who significantly influenced the entire project. I will argue that the Scandinavian “tag-team”, invited by Charney and supported by Rossby, was not only critical to its ultimate success, but that differences in the cultures of American and Scandinavian meteorology made the Scandinavians better suited to accomplish the work at hand than their American counterparts. That the Scandinavians possessed both practical forecasting skills as well as superb analysis and theoretical knowledge enabled the answering of this question: Is the computer predicted representation of the atmosphere a valid one?