Carl-Gustaf Rossby

“Perhaps I occasionally sought to give, or inadvertently gave, to the student a sense of battle on the intellectual battlefield. If all you do is to give them a faultless and complete and uninhabited architectural masterpiece, then you do not help them to become builders of their own.”

Quick Facts

Born: 28th December 1898 in Stockholm, Sweden.

Died: 19th August 1957 in Stockholm, Sweden.

Previous Occupations: U.S. Weather Bureau 1926-1928. Academic at Massachusetts Institute of Technology 1928-1939. Head of University of Chicago Meteorology Department (1940).

Areas of Interest: Dynamical meteorology.

Known For: Discovery of the jet stream and long waves in the atmosphere (Rossby waves).

Childhood and Education

Carl-Gustaf Rossby was born on 28th December 1898 to his parents Alma Charlotta and Arvid in Stockholm, Sweden [1]. He was brought up in a reasonably large family, in which he was the eldest of his four siblings. As a child, Rossby was generally quite edgy and impatient [1], although this did not hinder him academically as he excelled at school. In fact, some may argue that it was Rossby’s lack of patience that somewhat led him to his career in meteorology. Following his schooling, Rossby started life at Stockholm University, where he studied for a bachelor’s degree in mathematics, mechanics and astronomy [2]. It was during this time that he began to develop a real interest in mathematical physics. No longer wanting to study at university, Rossby finished his degree in 1918 and left Stockholm to join the Geophysical Institute at the University of Bergen, Norway [1]. Whilst there, he got to meet Vilhelm Bjerknes and his research group who, at the time, were working on the revolutionary polar front theory [1]. However, Rossby did not publish any papers whilst in Bergen and felt that his mathematical and physical knowledge was lacking. As such, he moved back to Stockholm University in 1921 to study for a master’s in mathematical physics, which he successfully achieved in 1925 [2]. In order to fund his studies, Rossby took a year out from university and worked for the Swedish Meteorological and Hydrographical Service as a weather forecaster [2].


At the latter end of his master’s degree, Rossby was successful in applying for an American-Scandinavian Foundation fellowship [2]. As a result, he moved to Washington in 1926 and begun working for the U.S Weather Bureau [2]. However, his time there was a miserable one. Rossby, who came to the Bureau with enthusiasm and determination to drive forward his knowledge developed in Bergen, found that the staff were not interested and they seemed to regard him as a nuisance [1]. After publishing a few papers on atmospheric turbulence in 1926-1927, Rossby began a project for the Daniel Guggenheim Fund for the Promotion of Aeronautics [1]. He was given the task of setting up and organising a network of weather stations that would provide aviation forecasts for pilots flying between San Francisco and Los Angeles [2]. Whilst completing this project, Rossby published some of his most notable papers on stratospheric dynamics [1]. Rossby was passionate about promoting meteorology in the U.S. and in 1928 he joined the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he headed a new meteorology course [2]. He stayed at MIT as an academic until 1939 [3]. During his time there he published several papers including a paper on turbulence (including the logarithmic wind profile, 1935) and another on the impact of friction on ocean currents (1936) [1]. In 1939, Rossby returned to the U.S. Weather Bureau as assistant director of research, before becoming head of the University of Chicago’s meteorology department in 1940 [3]. It was here where he began his work on the large scale motions of the atmosphere and made his most important discovery of the jet stream and long waves in the atmosphere (later called Rossby waves in his honour) [4]. In the late 1940s, Rossby returned to Sweden and helped establish the International Meteorological Institute at the University of Stockholm, a mark of his desire to encourage people into meteorology [2]. Towards the end of his career he turned his attention to atmospheric chemistry, before his death in 1957 [2].

Awards and Achievements

  • President of the American Meteorological Society from 1944-1945 [4].
  • Received the Robert M. Losey (1946) and Sylvanus Albert Reed (1933) awards from the Institute of Aeronautical Sciences [3].
  • Awarded the Royal Meteorological Society Symons Gold Medal in 1953 [3].
  • Discovered the ‘lifting condensation level’ in a 1932 paper, later leading to our knowledge on the structures of air masses and fronts [1].


  • With a desire to study atmospheric circulation, Rossby attempted to construct a rotating tank experiment during his time at the U.S. Weather Bureau. He was unsuccessful and it took a further 25 years before this was achieved at the University of Chicago, at a time when he was head of the meteorology department [2].
  • The course Rossby headed at MIT was one of the first ever in the U.S [2].
  • He was widely seen as a hugely inspirational lecturer at MIT and, despite his pretty impatient past, always had time for others ideas [1].

Scientific Papers and Publications

Rossby, C. G., and Montgomery, R. B., The Layer of Frictional Influence in Wind and Ocean Currents, Papers in Physical Oceanography and Meteorology published by Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, 1935:


  2. Harper, K., 2007: Weather and Climate: Decade by Decade, Facts on File, 100-101.