The International Geophysical Year: The Greatest Science Fair of All Time

Written by Sam Marks 

During the 1950s, the Cold War had chilled political relations across all continents. The advancements of technology and science were severely hindered by the frozen international climate. The emphasis on development in Cold War powers was based around conflict to defeat an enemy over cooperation with various scientific backgrounds. However, one bridge between the Cold War Powers saw a departure from this frigid period. That bridge was a global science project.  

From 1 July 1957 to 31 December 1958, sixty-seven countries from every continent participated in the International Geophysical Year (IGY). It oversaw the progression of Earth and space sciences and led to the fulfilled promises of most nations that pledged to develop new technologies in previous years. Developments such as solar power, spandex, and establishing the first permanent Antarctic base were all finalized under the IGY. The most notable achievement of the event was the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik 1, the first satellite successfully launched into space. It was soon followed by other satellites launched by the USSR and US.  

The legacy of the IGY has been described as a terrific success. At the time the IGY generated immense enthusiasm for what the world may look like due to cooperative advancements in technology. The song ‘I.G.Y. (What a Beautiful World)’ by Donald Fagen describes the general optimism people felt towards the future. Futuristic concepts such as solar power, undersea railway travel, recreational space travel, and spandex all embolized a brighter world ahead.  

Above the material benefits, a greater presence of international collaboration among scientific discovery served as the catalyst for other international scientific organizations formation. It was a beacon of progress and partnership shadowed by decades of espionage and competition. However, this year was not the first or last of its kind.  

Prior to the IGY, two years in human history served as International Polar Years (IPY) which were focused on international scientific research into the polar regions of the world. Interests in the polar regions sparked competing national efforts to explore and research the areas. It was not until 1875 when Austro-Hungarian naval officer Karl Weyprecht and German Maritime Observatory director began to plan the IPY. It was organized through the International Meteorological Organization (IMO), which was established in 1873. This project was one of the IMOs most notable and most ambitious. The aim of the IPY was to combine efforts in understanding the polar regions as humankind rather than individual national efforts. Seven years later, their effort paid off.  

The first IPY was held in 1882 and 1883, and had 12 participating countries: the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Netherlands, Norway, Russia, Sweden, United Kingdom, Canada, and the United States. These participating states operated 12 Artic based stations and two Antarctic stations. Multiple observation stations were established to analyze meteorology, geomagnetism, auroras, and oceanic structure in the area. The focus on forming cooperative scientific efforts contributed to future research projects to have global contributions.  

After the first IPY’s resounding success, the IMO launched a second International Polar Year from 1932 to 1933. This time 44 countries participated in the expedition that focused on weather forecasting and air and sea transportation improvements. Unfortunately, the Great Depression, which was occurring at the time, saw several projects abandoned due to lack of funding. Additionally, the Second World War caused significant amounts of data conceived from the second IPY to be lost due to the decline of international communication channels. However, the concept of the International Polar Year remained a prominent example of strong successes generated by international scientific cooperation.  

 On 5 April 1950, Earth scientist James van Allen’s living room was filled with several prominent scientists discussing a third International Polar Year. But due to the post-war and Cold War focuses on computer sciences and spaces sciences, the group decided that this year would be a worldwide Geophysical Year with a more expansive scientific scope. In 1952, the IGY was publicly announced by the International Council of Scientific Unions to be held from 1957 to 1958 to coincide with maximum solar activity occurred at the same time. The announcement was met with several leaders declaring their engagements. On 29 July 1955, the United States announced that it would launch small satellites into space as their contribution. The US had already engaged in scientific advances for international use during the “Atoms for Peace” program in 1953. Soviet scientist Leonid I. Sedov announced the USSR’s plans to launch satellites four days after the US had done.  

Beyond the launch of Sputnik, the IGY led to the discovery and confirmation of vital scientific concepts that laid foundations for greater research into various fields. Explorer I, the fourth satellite launched into space, discovered Van Allen radiation belts. These belts prevent solar winds from reaching and destroying Earth’s atmosphere, which keeps the planet habitable by all life on it. Mid-Ocean ridges, mountain systems created by new crusts formed by underwater volcanic activity moves away from these ridges, were also discovered. This served as a major step into confirming the plate-tectonic theory of Earth.  

The IGY was also incredibly successful in addressing issues that were left unfinished by the previous International Polar Years. To deal with the data problems in the second International Polar Year, the IGY saw the World Data Centre (WDC) system established. The WDC collected and filed all research under the year and made it available to every participating country.  

In 1954, Australia established the first permanent Antarctic base at Mawson. During the IGY, other nations such as the United Kingdom, France, Belgium, Russia, Japan, and the United States all established permanent Antarctic bases following the plans of the second IPY. Most of these bases are still active today and have contributed immense research in subjects such as auroras and inhabiting species in the polar regions.  

Following the IGY, the fourth and most recent International Polar Year was the longest and most extensive one held yet. From 2007 to 2011, it served as the largest campaign ever mounted towards the polar regions and emerged with further impressive results. Over 60 countries were involved in 228 research projects that focused on the polar environment, Artic oceans, ice sheets, and Permafrost. In 2011, a 38-chapter report was published to showcase the work all participating countries had made and serve as a guide for future polar scientific expeditions. It has resulted in greater focus on sustainability in the polar regions and has promoted educational efforts in polar science. To this day, the Association of Polar Early Career Scientists holds International Polar Weeks to engage with schools and the public in understanding the polar worlds and threats climate change may cause it. However, it is a far cry from what the IGY had promised and inspired in the minds of many at the time.  

Despite the general optimism for the IGY, much of its existence has been forgotten by the wider world. Encapsulated by Fagen’s song, written in 1982, a sarcastic feeling to it looks back on all the false hope that was attributed to that time. The future that was expected by the public has caused significant controversy that the once eager public was unsuspecting at the time of the IGY. Solar power, high speed rail, and independent space travel have all garnered significant political disputes since their creation. The profound changes that would be made to the existing industries and energy systems requires political capital that no amount of scientific backing could or has yet to provide. The fourth IPY also suffered from these struggles where international action to work against climate change has been difficult to garner a call to arms.  

 A project once inspiring sentiments of collaboration and ambition has largely been lost from the history books. Fagen’s song is arguably one of the most prominent ways the IGY has been recorded to historic memory. Regardless, the IGY served as an essential component to the wider world in more ways than one. Through a scientific lens, it promoted the expansion of analysis into fields that would lead to greater understandings of our world and what surrounds us. From a historic lens, the IGY was a brief but bright example of how human achievement through cooperation can be brought about in the most bitter of times. For all that has been left to further debate, what was brought to the table from the project was enough to bring conversations into the mainstream and ensure their research is protected and advanced. 


Bibliography 

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Featured image (“3c International Geophysical Year single“) via the Smithsonian Museum.

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