Founder of Meteorology
Bjerknes was born on March 14, 1862, in Christiana, Norway. He was the son of Karl Anton Bjerknes (18251903), a Norwegian scientist who first recognized relationships between hydrodynamics and electrodynamics. As a young boy, Bjerknes learned much by working with his father, who was a professor of mathematical physics at the University of Christiana.
In 1888 Bjerknes received a master of science degree from the University of Christiana, and then branched out on his own, avoiding his father’s increasingly secretive behavior. Bjerknes’s long academic career began with an appointment to the University of Stockholm in 1895. During his professorship at Stockholm, he sought the support of the Carnegie Foundation in the United States to develop an advanced program of scientific weather forecasting. The foundation awarded him a yearly grant from 1905 to 1941 to pursue this research.
In 1897, early in his tenure at the University of Stockholm, his son Jacob was born. Jacob eventually became a valuable partner in his later years and continued his father’s work after Bjerknes’s death.
After brief appointments to the University of Christiana (19071912) and University of Leipzig (19121917), Bjerknes joined the faculty at the Bergen Museum of Natural Science in Bergen, Norway, in 1917, where he established the Bergen School of Meteorology. While there he wrote his most influential publication, On the Dynamics of the Circular Vortex with Applications to the Atmosphere and Atmospheric Vortex and Wave Motion (1921). In this work, he presented some of his most significant ideas; he made a direct analogy between hydrodynamics—stream flow, turbulence, and whirlpools in water—to the behavior of air masses. He recognized that the movements of air masses could be better predicted when characteristic vortices (such as cyclones, polar fronts, and squall lines) were understood.
With his son Jacob, Bjerknes established a system of meteorological observation stations in Norway during World War I. The pair also worked together to define weather fronts as interfaces between air masses.
Among Bjerknes’s many other publications are Dynamic Meteorology and Hydrography (with J. J. Sandstrom) in 1910 and Kinematics (with Hesselberg and Devik) in 1911.
Bjerknes joined the faculty of the University of Oslo in 1926, and stayed there until his retirement in 1932. He died on April 9, 1951, in Oslo, Norway.
Vilhelm Bjerknes’s Legacy
Bjerknes helped to establish the scientific foundation for meteorology, of which he is a founding father.
His application of hydrodynamics to the motion of air masses and his development of the idea of vortex (whirlpool) flow as a factor in determining weather became the foundations for modern concepts in weather forecasting. These vortices today are known as the systems of high and low pressure on weather maps seen on the evening news. Using knowledge of the interaction of weather systems, meteorologists today can help predict the advent of severe weather and therefore help to alleviate potential damage and loss of life.
Bjerknes was the driving force behind the famous Bergen School of Meteorology. The school became known for its systematic training of meteorologists and for its accuracy in weather forecasting. Today the University of Bergen has expanded its meteorological research beyond the School of Meteorology. The Nansen Environmental and Remote Sensing Center (NERSC), affiliated with the university, is dedicated to understanding regional and global environmental problems through modeling climatic processes, observing marine systems, and monitoring weather related disasters.
Bjerknes’s son Jacob further extended his father’s legacy. Jacob settled in the United States in 1940 where he joined the meteorology faculty at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA). There, he discovered the jetstream effect, studied the special weather subsystem called El Niño, and developed the meteorological center at UCLA into an institution of international reputation.
Vilhelm Bjerknes – 1862-1951