Political Meteorology

Weather, climate and the contest for Antarctic sovereignty, 1939-1959


  • Adrian Howkins Colorado State University


Antarctica is the coldest continent in the world. It is the continent with the most ice, but the least precipitation. Within the global atmospheric system Antarctica functions as a massive heat sink, cooling the air and regulating global temperature. Its deep ice sheets provide archives into the world’s climatic past, and they hold one of the keys to the world’s climatic future. However, as late as the middle of the twentieth century, none of this was known with any degree of certainty. Various meteorological theories existed, many dating from the heroic era of Antarctic exploration at the beginning of the twentieth century (Fogg 1992). But these theories tended to rest on scant data and there were rarely enough observations to substantiate them. Between 1939 and 1959, meteorologists from a number of different countries made significant advances in their understanding of the weather and climate of Antarctica. From the Second World War onwards, various countries made systematic attempts to observe and understand the continent’s weather and climate (Rooy 1957; Rubin 1966). These efforts culminated in the work of the International Geophysical Year (IGY) of 1957-58 (Lamb 1961). In particular, meteorologists sought to understand the ways in which Antarctica’s weather influenced the surrounding oceans and continents. In asking this question, they debated whether a South Polar Front functioned in a similar fashion to the Polar Front in the northern hemisphere, first outlined by the Bergen school of dynamic meteorology (Friedman 1989). By the end of this period, many questions remained unanswered, and there was certainly no consensus. But, by 1959, sufficient data existed to resolve the basic questions of Antarctic meteorology.