The International Council for Science (ICSU), in conjunction with the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), has designated 2007-2008 an International Polar Year. Activities are designed to focus the attention of the public and the scientific community on the need for greater understanding of the complex interrelationships between the geophysical and climatological processes that occur in the Earth's high latitudes and their effects on the rest of the globe. Many of the changes seen in the polar regions are more dramatic and sudden than those seen in lower latitudes. They provide, therefore, a wonderful natural laboratory for examining the nature of those changes and the relationship between climate changes and the general ecology of the region, as well as human social structures. Ceremonies around the world on March 1, 2007, marked the beginning of this multinational and interdisciplinary effort which is uniting over sixty nations in a common goal.
To gain a precise picture of the state of the polar regions as a benchmark against which changes can be measured, and to quantify past and present environmental and social changes for the purpose of improving projections about the future, are among the goals.
The United States National Committee for the International Polar Year has a broad vision for America's participation. With the National Science Foundation acting as the lead agency, the goals include:
- initiating sustained efforts aimed at assessing the large-scale environmental changes that take place;
- beginning new studies of the human-natural systems that impact social, economic and strategic interests;
- designing and implementing polar observational networks that will provide a long-term and multi-disciplinary perspective; and
- encouraging public engagement with the scientific community to increase general scientific literacy in the population, and specifically to build support for continued research into the least densely inhabited lands on Earth. An example is the Census of Antarctic Marine Life which endeavors to catalogue the amount and location of living resources in the region.
The first International Polar Year (IPY) took place from 1881 to 1884, and was the first series of coordinated international expeditions to the polar regions ever undertaken. The first IPY was inspired by the Austrian explorer and naval officer Karl Weyprecht, a scientist and co-commander of the Austro-Hungarian Polar Expedition of 1872-74. It was the antecedent for other international research programs such as the landmark International Geophysical Year (IGY) in 1957 and the upcoming 4th International Polar Year, which began in 2007.
By 1874 Weyprecht was aware that solutions to the fundamental problems of meteorology and geophysics were to be sought near the Earth’s poles, and that decisive results would only be obtained through a series of coordinated scientific expeditions. Weyprecht’s inspiration came from his experience as a scientist and co-commander of the Austro-Hungarian Polar Expedition of 1872-74. Thousands of scientific observations were recorded, but afterwards he realized that all of the information amassed was of limited use.
He believed that nations should put aside their unprofitable competition for mere geographical discovery and instead field a series of coordinated expeditions dedicated to scientific research. The work of these expeditions would be: “. . .with instruments precisely alike, governed by precisely the same instructions, and for a period of one year at least, to record a series of the utmost possible synchronous observations". Only in this way, he said, “. . .shall we be placed in possession of materials enabling us to attempt a solution of the problems which now lie embedded in the Arctic ice.”
Weyprecht died in 1881, but his inspiration lead to the largest coordinated series of scientific expeditions ever undertaken in the Arctic during the 19th century—to what is now known as the First International Polar Year.
First International Polar Year (1882-1883)
During the first IPY eleven nations combined to establish fourteen principal research stations spread across the polar regions; twelve were located in the Arctic (see map), along with at least 13 auxiliary stations. Some 700 men incurred the dangers of Arctic service to establish and relieve these stations between 1881 and 1884. Leading geophysical observatories around the world also contributed to the coordinated research program of the IPY.
By 1884 the field program of the first IPY was finished, but the difficult work of reducing, analyzing and publishing the results was just beginning. U.S. arctic explorer Adolphus Washington Greely wrote, “The scientific work of these stations must be justly measured by the final result." In the end, no fundamental discoveries were made as a result of the first IPY. The heart of the research program devised by Weyprecht was the coordinated program of observation, but these data so painstakingly acquired were never fully utilized. Each nation published their observations independently and the International Polar Commission subsequently dissolved. Henryk Arktowski, a geologic research pioneer observed: “It may be that if the publication, and above all the discussion of the observations had been left to a central office, possibly international, the scientific level of the work accomplished would have been better appreciated.” The potential benefit of the coordinated program envisioned by Weyprecht was lost, and the first IPY was thus reduced to a series of interesting but merely concomitant expeditions.
Second International Polar Year (1932-1933)
The International Meteorological Organization proposed and promoted the Second IPY (1932–1933) as an effort to investigate the global implications of the newly discovered “Jet Stream.” Forty nations participated in the Second IPY, and it heralded advances in meteorology, magnetism, atmospheric science, and in the “mapping” of ionospheric phenomena that advanced radioscience and technology. Forty permanent observation stations were established in the Arctic, creating a step-function expansion in ongoing scientific Arctic research. In Antarctica, the U.S. contribution was the second Byrd Antarctic expedition, which established a winter-long meteorological station approximately 125 miles south of Little America Station on the Ross Ice Shelf at the southern end of Roosevelt Island. This was the first research station inland from Antarctica’s coast.
Third International Polar Year (1957-1958)
The Third International Polar Year was renamed to International Geophysical Year (IGY), 1 July 1957 to 31 December 1958, celebrated the 75th and 25th anniversaries of the First and Second IPYs. The IGY was conceived by a number of post-WWII eminent physicists, including Sydney Chapman, James Van Allen, and Lloyd Berkner, at an informal gathering in Washington, DC in 1950. These individuals realized the potential of the technology developed during WWII (for example, rockets and radar), and they hoped to redirect the technology and scientific momentum towards advances in research, particularly in the upper atmosphere. Sixty-seven nations conducted research during the third IPY/IGY, with 12 nations maintaining 65 stations in Antarctica. The IGY’s research, discoveries, and vast array of synoptic observations revised or “rewrote” many notions about the Earth’s geophysics. One long disputed theory, continental drift, was confirmed. A U.S. satellite discovered the Van Allen Radiation Belt encircling the Earth. Geophysical traverses over the Antarctic icecap yielded the first informed estimates of the total size of Antarctica’s ice mass. For many disciplines, the IGY led to an increased level of research that continues to the present. The world’s first satellites were launched. A notable political result founded on the IGY was ratification of the Antarctic Treaty in 1961. The success of the IGY also fostered an additional year of research through the International Geophysical Cooperation. The Special Committee for the IGY became the model on which three post-IGY Scientific Committees developed, for Antarctic, Oceanic, and Space Research, and several focused research efforts including the International Year of the Quiet Sun. The scientific, institutional, and political legacies of the IGY endured for decades, many to the present day.
Fourth International Polar Year (2007-2008)
The launch of the International Polar Year (IPY) on March 1, 2007, marked the onset of over 150 projects involving thousands of scientists, from over 60 countries and a wide range of research disciplines in the hopes to discover more about the polar regions and their critical influence on the rest of the planet.
The International Council for Science (ICSU) in conjunction with the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) formally established an International Polar Year in 2007-2008, the 125th anniversary of the first polar year and the 50th anniversary of the International Geophysical Year. ICSU/WMO formed an International Planning Group to facilitate the development of an IPY program and to provide project integration where appropriate.