Sverdrup, Harald

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Sverdrup, Harald

Norwegian Meteorologist, Physical Oceanographer, and Arctic Explorer 18881957

Sverdrup is a unit of measure, the system of education in Norway, and a set of equations describing the movement of ocean currents. All are named for Harald Ulrik Sverdrup.

Sverdrup is remembered not simply for a particular discovery or famous expedition but for his immense influence on the entire fields of oceanography and meteorology . His career started and ended in his native Norway, with 12 critical years in the United States where he developed the Scripps Institution of Oceanography into an institute of international leadership in oceanic education and research.

Early Career

In his twenties, Sverdrup performed research on atmospheric and oceanic physics first in his native Norway, then at the University of Leipzig, Germany, and then back at Oslo in Norway. He spent most of his thirties as chief scientist with Roald Amundsen's polar expedition on the Maud (from 1918 to 1925) where he worked on meteorology, magnetics, atmospheric electricity, physical oceanography, and tidal dynamics on the Siberian shelf. He also spent 8 months during 1919 and 1920 in Siberia, living with nomadic reindeer herders called the Chukchi. He visited the Carnegie Institution in Washington, D.C., in the winter of 192122.

For 10 years after the expedition, Sverdrup held various posts in Norway, did a great deal of work on the Maud data, and edited the scientific report of the expedition. During this period he also spent some months at a time in the United States, primarily at the Carnegie Institution but also at other laboratories in the United States. He earned a reputation as one of the few scientists in the world with a comprehensive knowledge of the world's oceans.

Scripps and World War II

Sverdrup took on the challenge of leading the Scripps Institution of Oceanography (SIO) in 1936, when the institution was little more than an underfunded marine station in the University of California (UC) system. In 1936 the degree-granting campus for SIO was moved from Berkeley to Los Angeles (LA). Sverdrup worked closely with the UCLA campus, the president of the university, and the Scripps family, the benefactors of the institution. Sverdrup attracted top scientific talent, obtained an ocean-going research vessel, revised the curriculum, directed research attention to the California Current and organized expeditions to the Gulf of California where SIO conducted the first comprehensive hydrographic survey of that area.

Sverdrup's 3-year appointment was completed just as Germany's Nazis occupied Norway. Sverdrup stayed on at SIO, applied for American citizenship, and began work on the problems identified by the U.S. Navy as urgent in wartime. Sverdrup was particularly active in training military weather and surf forecasters in cooperation with UCLA Meteorology. Select groups received advanced training at SIO. This work was highly important in the planning of invasions by sea, the best known being Normandy (in France).

The war and the establishment of the Office of Naval Research forever changed research and graduate education in oceanography. Sverdrup began planning for postwar oceanography long before the war ended. Many of the young Naval people trained at SIO returned to be faculty researchers.

First Oceanography Book

Meanwhile, Sverdrup, with colleagues Martin Johnson and Richard Fleming, had been working on The Oceans: Their Physics, Chemistry and General Biology, the first comprehensive text in oceanography. Published during the war (in 1942), it was considered of such strategic importance that its distribution abroad was curtailed until after the war. Fifty years later it was still considered a valuable resource in the field and Sverdrup's chapter on the world's oceans had never been surpassed within a single volume.

In 1948, Sverdrup returned to Norway where he organized the Norwegian Polar Institute, led the transformation of the Norwegian education system, and participated in international relief work. He was also professor of geophysics at the University of Oslo from 1949 until his death in 1957.

Sverdrup's research generated long lists of scientific papers across a wide range of subjects affecting many aspects of oceanic and atmospheric research. That research alone would secure Sverdrup's international reputation, but beyond his own work, the wide-ranging achievements of his students and colleagues testify to the importance of his influence.

see also Ocean Currents; Oceanography, Physical.

Vita Pariente


Friedman, Robert M. The Expeditions of Harald Ulrik Sverdrup: Contexts for Shaping an Ocean Science. San Diego, CA: Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California, 1994.

Internet Resources

Harald Ulrik Sverdrup Biography. Scripps Institute of Oceanography Archives. <>.

Nierenberg, William A. "Harald Ulrik Sverdrup." Biographical Memoirs. NationalAcademy of Science. <>.


A sverdrup (Sv) is a volume transport of 1 million cubic meters per second. Imagine a million king-size waterbeds. Then, imagine them as a group passing by every second. That's a lot of water. Ocean currents are measured in sverdrups. The Gulf Stream, for example, flows at the rate of at least 55 Sv.

The sverdrup was named for Harald Ulrik Sverdrup to honor his contributions to the science of oceanography. The equations that Sverdrup developed to describe the movement of large volumes of water became the foundation for much of dynamical oceanography that every physical oceanographer learns. Sverdrup is credited with establishing physical oceanography as a major area of scientific endeavor.