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Helmut Erich Landsberg

A short biography

Helmut Erich Landsberg was born in Frankfurt, Germany.  As a doctoral student at Frankfurt University during the late 1920s, he was heavily involved in efforts to apply geophysical knowledge to practical problems in agriculture and aviation.  After completing his doctorate in 1930 in seismology, he continued to work under the auspices of one of his advisers, meteorologist Franz Linke, who would eventually help him to immigrate to the United States in 1934 after the rise of the Nazi Party.  His first academic position was located at Pennsylvania State College, where he applied his seismological knowledge to practical problems.  During these early years in the United States, he was not heavily involved in climatological research.  But with the onset of America’s entry into World War II in 1941, he sought to put climatology to work.  He worked with the Army Air Force to make bombing more precise, and his superiors praised his efforts as being uniquely integral to the success of bombing campaigns on the Pacific Front. 

During the war, Landsberg began to think critically about the place of climatology in American society.  Given that climatology had always been subservient to its mother discipline of meteorology, he worried that climatology would fall into old patterns once hostilities ended.  Imagining a so-called “climatological renaissance” as early as 1943, he began to argue that the study of climate would be integral to maintaining a stable society in peacetime.  This ambition lived with him for the remainder of the war, and afterward he used his expertise and connections to implement his vision.  One would be hard-pressed to argue that climatology was seen generally as a useful discipline, and even Landsberg himself acknowledged often that attaining his goals would mean overcoming many intellectual and institutional barriers.  Nonetheless, during the 1950s and 1960s, his efforts contributed to a growing awareness among America’s elites that climatology would be a useful discipline. 

While Landsberg was clearly invested in maximizing the usefulness of climatology to human society, he wore multiple disciplinary hats – bioclimatologist, urban climatologist, microclimatologist.  Omnipresent within the global climatological community, he gained recognition for being one of the most inspiring climatologists of the 20th century.  While serving as director of the U.S. Weather Bureau’s Office of Climatology between 1955 and 1966, he argued often that studying the physics of the atmosphere would prove valuable in the long-term.  Not only would the mathematization of the atmosphere provide the tools to predict future climate states, he believed that the momentum would usher in a world whereby climatology would be seen as invaluable to human ambitions to provide sufficient levels of food, shelter, and stability. 

While he always harbored a grand vision of climatology as a useful discipline, Landsberg observed with great consternation the popularization of climate in contemporary affairs.  Abhorring what he saw as the uptake of climate into popular culture and politics, he could not help but grow wary of claims about future climate-induced disaster.  Contrary to claims that climate was becoming increasingly unstable during the 1970s, he instead argued that population growth combined with an unwillingness to consider climate in everyday decision making made the vagaries of climate appear more disruptive.  “Some, who are not particularly familiar with the peculiarly complex mechanisms of the atmosphere have come forth with prophesies of impending climatic catastrophes,” he commented in 1976.  While he acknowledged what appeared to be vacillations in climate parameters, it seemed premature to equate such vacillations with long-term changes or to equate such changes as being the result of human activities.[1]   

While Landsbeg had spent decades  arguing for the value of climate understanding to human affairs, it seemed by the 1970s and early 1980s that genuine understanding had become secondary to the politics of alarm that swept across the country.  Always envisioning climatology as a reticent discipline, he never felt comfortable in a society where climate change had become wrapped up into other salient issues that spilled out on the pages of national newspapers, including topics like anthropogenic global climate change and claims of an impending nuclear winter.  While in retirement, it seemed integral to isolate climate from the vulgarities of politics and popular culture, and he never found a solution that suited his style as a scientist.  If there ever was a time when his own style contrasted with the ferment of the times, it was toward the end of his life.  He passed away in December 1985 while attending a meeting of the World Meteorological Organization, a moment of passing that marked definitively the sunset of a vision of climatology only increasingly obscured by contemporary affairs.  As he articulated in light of the inauguration of John F. Kennedy,

"Climatology is not a glamorous field.  It does not produce what the newspaper jargon applied to science calls ‘exciting discoveries’ or ‘spectacular breakthroughs.’  Improved knowledge in this field will, however, assure better living for mankind. . . . These ‘bread and butter’ goals may not fire the imagination nor kindle much enthusiasm but they will help us to the necessities of life."[2]

This quote, perhaps more than any other, illuminates the essence of Helmut Landsberg’s scientific life.

(Text: Gabriel Henderson)


[1] Landsberg, Helmut, “How is Our Climate Fluctuating,” Series 5, Box 1, Papers of Helmut Landsberg

[2] Landsberg, Helmut, “Outline for Climatology, 1961-1970,” Series 3, Box 7, Papers of Helmut Landsberg