What was the International Geophysical Year?
The worldwide research program had a prominent role in the history of our bases, but what exactly was the International Geophysical Year?
As UKAHT approaches our 30th anniversary, we're using the opportunity to share some stories of adventure, discovery and hope from our archives. For a long period during the Cold War, scientific cooperation between the East and the West was virtually non-existent. The two blocs were entrenched in a nuclear arms race which devoured much of their concentration in terms of reserve and development. The International Geophysical Year (IGY) from 1957 to 1958, marked the end of that discord – in science terms at least – and the beginning of a new period of global cooperation in Earth sciences.
The origins of the IGY can be traced to two intensive periods of research conducted in the polar regions known as the International Polar Years (IPY). The first was held in 1882-1883 and the second in 1932-1933. Recently, a third was conducted from March 2007 to March 2009.
In 1950, a group of geophysicists led by the American scientist Lloyd V Berkner proposed a third International Polar Year, that would build on the advances made in instrumentation and rocketry since the second IPY.
A sledge party near Detaille during the IGY (Credit: BAS Archive)
However, these proposals soon broadened from the field of polar studies to a wider array of geophysical research. The parent body of international scientific organisations – the International Council of Scientific Unions – sanctioned the broader study of proposals for what became known as the International Geophysical Year.
Who was involved in the International Geophysical Year?
National IGY committees were established by scientific organisations in many countries with around 70 nations cooperating in the IGY. One notable exception was mainland China which withdrew in protest against Taiwan’s participation.
What was International Geophysical Year?
Running from 1 July 1957 to 31 December 1958, the IGY was a cooperative scientific program conducted to study the earth and its environment. The research was conducted in 11 fields of geophysics:
- Aurora and airglow
- Cosmic rays
- Ionospheric physics
- Longitude and latitude determinations
- Solar activity
The timing of the IGY was chosen to coincide with the maximum sunspot cycle – a period when solar flares and other disturbances are at their most prevalent. As such, research on the sun was particularly significant.
US and USSR scientists in Antarctica (Credit: Alexander Maksimov)
The IGY established the World Data Center system that is still in place today. The USA hosted World Data Center A and the USSR hosted World Data Center B while the World Data Center C was divided among countries in Western Europe, Australia and Japan.
Each data centre was equipped to manage myriad data formats. Additionally, each host country agreed to abide by the organising committee's resolution of free and open exchange of data among nations. In total, the IGY involved nearly 30,000 scientists.
The IGY pioneered the use of rockets to conduct studies of high-altitude and upper atmospheric phenomena. Several of the earliest artificial satellites launched by the USSR and the USA in the late 1950s were used to gather data for the IGY.
What happened in Antarctica?
A significant focus of the IGY was to further the advancement of research in the polar regions, particularly Antarctica – the planet’s least studied region. In fact, the official emblem of the IGY depicted the Earth's globe belted with a satellite's orbit and tilted to show the South Pole.
The IGY emblem (Credit: Public Domain)
Meteorological observations were one of the leading research areas in the IGY program. The global network of meteorological outposts established during the IGY consisted of over 4,000 scientific stations. Unsurprisingly, the polar regions were among the most important locations for IGY research due to their significant influence on the Earth’s climate and weather.
The main goals of the research were to determine the circulation of the atmosphere and the study of the weather at high latitudes. Among other studies were the movements of drifting ice and geomagnetic and aurora phenomena and how radio interference was affected in the far north and far south by the auroras (northern and southern lights).
The countries that deployed IGY stations in Antarctica were Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Chile, France, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, the UK, the US and the USSR. A total of 50 stations were organized on the Antarctic continent and sub-Antarctic waters.
IGY Antarctic research stations (Credit: Copernicus/CC 4.0)
Several UKAHT bases, including Port Lockroy, Horseshoe and Detaille, were key monitoring sites during the IGY. Port Lockroy acted as the communications centre for the 11 British bases during the IGY as well as undertaking atmospheric research.
Detaille Island was one of only two British bases that contributed meteorological data to the geophysical programmes of the IGY (the other being Port Lockroy). The remaining British bases mostly contributed to topographical surveying and geology.
Dennis Goldring uses a surveying instrument at Detaille (Credit: BAS Archives)
The IGY was also instrumental in establishing the first permanent structure at the South Pole, the Amundsen-Scott Station. Constructed in 1956, the station has been continuously occupied since it was built with the original structure surviving for over 53 years until it was demolished in 2010.
What did we learn?
A number of huge advancements – too many to list here – were made across several fields but key IGY discoveries included the confirmation of the existence of a continuous system of submarine mid-oceanic ridges that encircled the globe. The verification of this mountain chain, the largest on Earth, would later form the foundations of the recognition of plate tectonics in the 1970s.
The discovery of the Van Allen radiation belts – two radiation belts filled with electrons and charged particles that surround Earth like giant doughnuts at altitudes of hundreds and thousands of kilometres – was another major achievement of IGY.
The Antarctic Treaty
The IGY also paved the way for the 1959 foundation of the Antarctic Treaty which came into force in 1961. The Antarctic Treaty called for the use of Antarctica for peaceful purposes and cooperative scientific research which in turn led to the Antarctic Treaty System, putting several international agreements in place to protect Antarctic wildlife.
The flags of the signatories at the Ceremonial South Pole (Credit: Public Domain)
The original 12 signatories to the Antarctic Treaty were Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Chile, France, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa, the UK, the USA and the USSR – all of whom had been active in Antarctica during the International Geophysical Year of 1957-58, It has since been acceded to by many other nations taking the total number of parties to 56 today.
In a 1957 address, US President Eisenhower stated:
"The most important result of the International Geophysical Year is that demonstration of the ability of peoples of all nations to work together harmoniously for the common good. I hope this can become common practice in other fields of human endeavour."
Lead image: Port Lockroy during the IGY, 1957 (Credit: Peter Gale/BAS Archives)
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