Inventing Atmospheric Science

Inventing Atmospheric Science

Bjerknes, Rossby, Wexler, and the Foundations of Modern Meteorology

By James Rodger Fleming

How scientists used transformative new technologies to understand the complexities of weather and the atmosphere, told through the intertwined careers of three key figures.





How scientists used transformative new technologies to understand the complexities of weather and the atmosphere, told through the intertwined careers of three key figures.

“The goal of meteorology is to portray everything atmospheric, everywhere, always,” declared John Bellamy and Harry Wexler in 1960, soon after the successful launch of TIROS 1, the first weather satellite. Throughout the twentieth century, meteorological researchers have had global ambitions, incorporating technological advances into their scientific study as they worked to link theory with practice. Wireless telegraphy, radio, aviation, nuclear tracers, rockets, digital computers, and Earth-orbiting satellites opened up entirely new research horizons for meteorologists. In this book, James Fleming charts the emergence of the interdisciplinary field of atmospheric science through the lives and careers of three key figures: Vilhelm Bjerknes (1862–1951), Carl-Gustaf Rossby (1898–1957), and Harry Wexler (1911–1962).

In the early twentieth century, Bjerknes worked to put meteorology on solid observational and theoretical foundations. His younger colleague, the innovative and influential Rossby, built the first graduate program in meteorology (at MIT), trained aviation cadets during World War II, and was a pioneer in numerical weather prediction and atmospheric chemistry. Wexler, one of Rossby's best students, became head of research at the U.S. Weather Bureau, where he developed new technologies from radar and rockets to computers and satellites, conducted research on the Antarctic ice sheet, and established carbon dioxide measurements at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii. He was also the first meteorologist to fly into a hurricane—an experience he chose never to repeat.

Fleming maps both the ambitions of an evolving field and the constraints that checked them—war, bureaucracy, economic downturns, and, most important, the ultimate realization (prompted by the formulation of chaos theory in the 1960s by Edward Lorenz) that perfectly accurate measurements and forecasts would never be possible.


Out of Print ISBN: 9780262033947 306 pp. | 6 in x 9 in 35 b&w photos


$20.00 X ISBN: 9780262536318 306 pp. | 6 in x 9 in 35 b&w photos


  • James Fleming uncovers the rich history of modern meteorology by finding amazing new sources of information on Vilhelm Bjerknes, Carl Rossby, and Harry Wexler, three giants in this field. These three scientists led the charge for breakthroughs in atmospheric science, numerical weather prediction and climate simulation, and new observational systems. This book is very reader friendly and is highly recommended.

    Warren M. Washington

    Senior Scientist, The National Center for Atmospheric Research

  • Inventing Atmospheric Science offers a fascinating, century-long story about the 'ocean of air' that surrounds the earth. Told through the professional lives of three outstanding scientists, Bjerknes, Rossby, and Wexler, James Rodger Fleming's book shows how weather research became atmospheric science, and in doing so reveals the possibilities and limits of scientific theories, practices, and instruments.

    Ann Johnson

    Associate Professor, Science and Technology Studies, Cornell University

  • Inventing Atmospheric Science is a must-read for anybody interested in the history of modern atmospheric science. Fleming provides an impressive survey of major twentieth-century developments through the perspective of three pioneers. His chapters on C. G. Rossby and Harry Wexler break new ground and will be especially welcomed by historians of science and atmospheric scientists alike.

    Robert Marc Friedman

    Professor of History of Science, University of Oslo; author of Appropriating the Weather: Vilhelm Bjerknes and the Construction of a Modern Meteorology