Sverdrup, Harald Ulrik

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(b. Sogndal, Norway, 15 November 1888; d. Oslo, Norway, 21 August 1957)


Sverdrup was the son of Johan Edvard Sverdrup, a fundamentalist clergyman and teacher, and Maria Vollar, who was related to the Grieg family. The Sverdrup family itself contained a number of prominent educators, industrialists, artists, and politicians, including Johan Sverdrup, prime minister of Norway and an important figure in the introduction of parliamentarianism and social reform in the 1870’s and 1880’s. Sverdrup was also distantly related to the arctic explorer Otto Sverdrup, a companion of Nansen, for whom the Sverdrup Islands in the Canadian Arctic were named.

Sverdrup received his early education at home. He was much interested in evolution and the natural sciences, but on entering high school in 1901 honored his parents’ wishes by studying classical languages. In 1906 he passed the elementary examinations at the University of Norway, then entered the military academy there, graduating as a reserve officer in 1908. He then began studies in the faculty of sciences. At first interested primarily in astronomy, Sverdrup was an enthusiastic and able student, and was soon discovered by Vilhelm Bjerknes, professor of physics and the leading authority on atmospheric circulation. Sverdrup became Bjerkne’s assistant in 1911 and was one of several students who followed him when he transferred to the University of Leipzig two years later. Sverdrup remained in Leipzig for four years, during which he published some twenty papers, either alone or in collaboration. One of these was his doctoral dissertation, “Der nordatlantische Passat,” published in 1917. Sverdrup’s work of this period was, not surprisingly, strongly influenced by that of Bjerknes, and much of it was concerned with the circulation of the atmosphere. Some of his models and calculations were remarkably exact, and have since been confirmed by more precise measurements.

By 1917 conditions at Leipzig had become intolerable because of World War I, and Bjerknes returned to Norway to become professor of geophysics at the University of Bergen. Sverdrup also returned to Norway, and was soon engaged by the arctic explorer Amundsen to act as chief scientist on an expedition to the North Pole. Sverdrup was eager to go, since the atmospheric conditions that he was studying could be observed more readily in the uniform arctic climate. Since Amundsen’s ship, the Maud, was small, each crew member had to assume several jobs, and Sverdrup served as navigator and cook, as well as scientist.

The Maud expedition left Norway in the summer of 1918. It failed to reach the North Pole, largely because adverse ice and current conditions prevented a regular drift over the polar basin, but Sverdrup was nonetheless able to conduct important research on atmospheric circulation and the magnetic field of the earth. In addition, he became interested in ethnography when the expedition came into contact with some of the tribes, particularly the Chukchi, of northeastern Siberia. This interest, together with an admiration for the culture of primitive peoples, lasted the rest of his life.

In the summer of 1922 the Maud was docked for repairs at Seattle and Sverdrup used the occasion to work at the Carnegie Institution of Washington, where he began to interpret the magnetic observations that he had made. He served as sole leader of the expedition when it was resumed in the same year, and continued making oceano-graphic and meteorological observations until the venture ended three years later. Even though the ship had not actually crossed the pole, Sverdrup was able to unravel the complicated dynamics of the tides in the polar basin. He transcribed part of his results on shipboard, then published them in 1926, the year in which he returned to Norway to succeed Bjerknes as professor of geophysics at the University of Bergen. His complete account of the Maud expedition, in which he drew upon observational data to explain the general features of the arctic atmospheric and oceanic circulation and energy distribution, was published in 1933.

In Bergen, Sverdrup also studied the magnetic and oceanographic data obtained by American expeditions in the Pacific and Antarctic oceans. In 1931 he took up an independent research position at the Christian Michelsens Institute and also participated in George Wilkins’ adventurous but premature attempt to reach the North Pole by submarine, a voyage that allowed him to make important observations of the deep sea north of Spitsbergen. In 1934 he studied the glaciers of Spitsbergen and, with H. W. Ahlmann, developed the study of the energy balance of glaciers. The following year he went to La Jolla, California, to become director of the Scripps Institute of Oceanography.

At Scripps Sverdrup was primarily concerned with the turbulent processes in the boundary layer between the atmosphere and the sea, although he also found time to work in other areas of geophysics and to write The Oceans (1942), a monumental handbook of oceanography that remains an important introduction to the subject. When, during World War II, Scripps became deeply involved in military research, Sverdrup made a number of significant contributions; his precise predictions of tides and the height of waves were particularly valuable in the course of the Pacific war.

In 1948 Sverdrup assumed the directorship of the Norwegian Polar Institute in Oslo. He reorganized the institute, arranged the Norwegian–British–Swedish expedition to Antarctica of 1949–1952, and organized Norwegian participation in the International Geophysical Year 1957–1958. In 1949 he became professor of geophysics at the University of Oslo, then dean of the faculty of science and vice–director of the university. Interested in curriculum reform, he was chairman of a committee for revising the university course of studies somewhat along the lines of those used in the American university system. His demonstrated administrative abilities led to his appointment as chairman of the Norwegian relief program in India. Under his leadership this program was planned to introduce Norwegian technology, particularly as it applied to the fishing industry, to the underdeveloped areas along the Cochin coast without disrupting existing cultural patterns. This plan met with a degree of success that must be attributed to Sverdrup’s diplomatic skills and to his profound sympathy for foreign cultures. In the midst of these activities, he died suddenly of a heart attack while attending a meeting.


I. Original Works. Sverdrup’s most important scientific works are“Der nordatlantische passat,” in Veröffentlichungen des Geophysikalischen Instituts der Universität Leipzig, ser. 2, B 2 (1917); “Dynamic of Tides on the North Siberian Shelf, Results from the Maud Expendition,” in Geofysiske publikasjoner, 4 no. 5 (1927); Scientific Results. The Norwegian North Polar Expedition with the “Maud,” 3 vols. (Bergen, 1927–1933); The Oceans, with M. W. Johnson and R. H. Fleming (New York, 1942).

A complete list of Sverdrup’s scientific papers is given in S. Richter, “Biboliografi over H. U. Sverdrups arbeider,” in Det Norske Videnskaps-Akademi i Oslo Arbok 1958 (Oslo, 1959).

II. Secondary Literature. The only real biography of Sverdrup is O. Devik, “Minnetale over professor Harald U. Sverdrup,” in Det Norske Videnskaps-Akademi i Oslo Årbok 1958 (Oslo, 1959).

Nils Spjeldnaes