Member of Canadian IPY team at Chesterfield Inlet, Nunavut, Canada. 1932-33.University of Saskatchewan Library, University Archives & Special Collections, Department of Physics fonds, photo C-27c (

Spiky, beeping Sputnik took the world by storm in late 1957 when Soviet rockets flung it into orbit during the global science collaboration called the International Geo-physical Year (IGY). Humanity looked to the skies with awe and doubt as U.S. and Soviet space programs launched a handful of satellites during the 18-month IGY. Back on Earth, thousands of non-space IGY projects were under way from the Equator to the poles, where seeds for the IGY were planted more than 130 years ago.  

Scientists have long turned to the frosty polar regions to learn about our planet, weather and the heavens. Those icy poles once attracted only intrepid explorers, who found the challenge of traversing them irresistible. Sometimes the most important information polar explorers brought back – if they returned – was how to survive.

But in the late 1870s, a German scientist suggested that the poles were more than just an extreme travel destination: they could advance our understanding of weather and Earth’s magnetic field, especially through long-term coordinated observations. Carl Weyprecht’s ideas prompted the International Polar Commission to organize the first International Polar Year (IPY) in 1882-83, during which 11 countries ventured to the Arctic and Antarctic regions for scientific research.

The first IPY produced only a limited amount of useful weather data, but it laid the foundation for three subsequent worldwide research collaborations, envisioned at 50-year intervals.  

History at High Latitudes  
Earth’s polar regions hold our geologic, biological and climate history.  Scientists study microorganisms, sea animal behavior and migration, ocean levels and temperature, glaciology, meteorology, spaceweather, global warming and more in those icy landscapes. The IPY offers scientists a rare opportunity to widen the scope of their polar research projects and to pool their funding.  

“Events like the IPY and other celebrations of science and collaboration are really important,” said Julie Brigham-Grette, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Geosciences at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and Chair of the National Academy of Sciences Polar Research Board. Dr. Brigham-Grette conducted research in Siberia with scientists from three other countries during the most recent IPY. “Countries can get together and make the science happen when it’s otherwise too expensive for them individually,” she said.

First International Polar Year: 1882-83
The first IPY sought to collect polar data for improved weather and storm prediction in Europe and the United States. Eleven countries built a dozen research stations around the Arctic, and two in the far southern hemisphere near Antarctica. Hundreds of participants from the U.S., Canada, Russia, Europe and Scandinavia recorded surface air temperature, tides, currents, sea level pressure and magnetic activity to help create the first North and South Atlantic weather charts. Stations in Alaska and Russia also documented native people, plants and wildlife.

The U.S. Greely Expedition famously ended in disaster when several shiploads of relief supplies failed to reach their IPY research camp at Lady Franklin Bay in far northern Nunavut, Canada.  Eighteen of the expedition’s 25 men died of starvation and exposure before the group was rescued.  

Fifty Years Later, IPY 2  
Organized by the International Meteorological Organization, the second IPY took place in 1933-34, during The Great Depression. Limited funding greatly reduced the scope and impact of this IPY, yet 47 countries still managed to send 22 expeditions to the poles and establish 40 polar research stations. IPY 2 applied weather balloons, meteorographs, radio and other technologies to a range of experiments on the jet stream, polar ice, magnetism, auroras, the ionosophere and radio science.  

IGY: The Space Age Polar Year
Better known as the International Geophysical Year and modeled on the previous polar years, the IGY dazzled Earthlings with rockets and satellites in 1957-58.  Originally scheduled for 50 years after IPY 2, the IGY was moved forward to coincide with a period of increased solar activity and lunar eclipses. “Geophysical” replaced “polar” to encompass research into aurora and airglow, the ionosphere, solar activity, cosmic rays, nuclear radiation, glaciology, geomagnetism, meteorology, oceanography, seismology, longitude and latitude mapping, and gravity.

IGY discoveries included a hidden Antarctic mountain range and a notable Antarctic temperature increase that supported early suspicions of global warming. Climate scientist Charles Keeling started graphing monthly measurements of atmospheric carbon monoxide from the Mauna Loa Observatory, giving us the Keeling Curve that shows a sharp and steady rise in greenhouse gases over the past 60 years. In 1959, 12 countries signed the Antarctic Treaty specifying that Antarctica would be used for peaceful and scientific purposes only.

Fourth IPY:  Earth’s Past, Present and Future
Fifty years after IGY ushered in the Space Age, the global science event returned to its polar roots, with a special emphasis on climate change, polar communities and public education. Organized by the International Council for Science and the World Meteorological Organization, IPY 4 drew 50,000 participants from 60 countries who worked on more than 200 projects between 2007and 2009.  

“It does help to focus attention and funding on projects that can really improve the science at the poles, and which have importance to everybody’s lives,” said Douglas Wiens, Ph.D., the Robert S. Brookings Distinguished Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis. He cited projects that study the causes and rate of ice melt at the poles as an example. “Even if people don’t live in coastal areas, they’ll be affected by the sea level rise from melting polar ice,” he said.  

Support for IPY events enables field work, equipment purchases and technology improvements, said Dr. Wiens, a seismologist and geophysicist. He participated in two IPY 4 projects: mapping the Gamburtsev Mountain Range, which was discovered under Antarctic ice during the IGY; and installing the Polar Earth Observing Network (POLENET) to remotely monitor the atmosphere, polar ice-sheets and the Earth’s crust and mantle.

“Before the IPY, we didn’t have seismographs that could operate year-round autonomously in Antarctica,” explained Dr. Wiens. “Those were developed in the run-up to the IPY.” The polar-proof seismographs, GPS receivers and weather recording stations are still operating 10 years later in West Antarctica.

Some IPY 4 projects focused on human polar populations and how climate change is impacting their health, culture, economy, livelihoods and physical environments. Public outreach for IPY 4 included Polar Palooza, a live program that took researchers and Alaska natives to science museums around the U.S. to educate people about the IPY, polar research and climate change.  

Dr. Brigham-Grette led a U.S. IPY team on a project with Germany, Russia, and Austria at Lake El’gygytgyn in northeast Russia, where they pulled a sediment core revealing three million years of climate history. It is the longest Arctic climate record yet, and one that might alter our understanding of past ice formation. Results from this and other IPY projects will provide benchmarks for past and future comparison.  

“Every 50 years we’re looking around and can compare what it was like 50 years ago,” said Dr. Brigham-Grette. “Then we can prepare a summary of the 2007-09 IPY to give those future scientists who are in kindergarten now, so they have what they need to know for the next IPY in 50 years.”

Polar Research and the IPY Affect Everyday Folks Every Day  
In 100 years, how the world looks will be controlled by things that are happening in the Antarctic and Greenland right now, said Dr. Wiens. People might not feel it yet, but we all will be affected by global warming, polar ice melt and the changes it is already causing around the world. Events like the IPY allow scientists to continue expanding our view of Earth’s past and future, starting at the poles.  

“When people discover something like tropical plants and dinosaur fossils in the middle of Antarctica, it’s telling us how our climate is very changeable, and how our world looked very different in the past,” said Dr. Wiens. “I think it’s just something we should know about as humans.”

Meg Evans has written science stories for the Evanston RoundTable since 2015, covering topics ranging from local crayfish, coyotes and cicadas to gravitational waves, medical cannabis, invasive garden...