The International Geophysical Year was designated as a major international effort of the world’s scientists to gather and share data on the Earth’s natural phenomena. The 1957-1958 year was selected because scientists desired to coordinate worldwide observations during this known period of maximum sun-spot activity. More than 10,000 scientists from 67 countries participated in a program in which 2,500 IGY stations were established throughout the world. Data collected covered a wide variety of disciplines that included geology, oceanography, glaciology, meteorology, seismology, geomagnetics, and ionospheric, auroral and outer-space phenomena.

The IGY was the largest and most important international scientific effort to that date. One of its many later ramifications was the setting aside of Antarctica as a nonmilitary region to be used for international scientific purposes alone. The IGY was the first worldwide scientific effort to involve Antarctica, owing to rapid advances in logistics and technology that enabled these activities to be undertaken on the southern continent. The Antarctic was recognized as a region of profound interest and unique characteristics. It was considered as having potential for geophysical information regarding the impact of its huge ice mass on global weather and the oceans, as well as the nature of the aurora australis and the ionosphere over the ice during the long Antarctic winters.

The South Pole, site of the United States’ Amundsen-Scott Station became the terminal link in important Pole-to-Pole observations along three meridians. A weather station at Little America analyzed reports from aircraft, trail parties, outlying stations, whaling fleets, and nearby countries.

The IGY activities in Antarctica contributed significantly to knowledge of the physical character of the earth and its weather, the ionosphere, and outer space. Much new knowledge of the Antarctic ice sheet was gained from drilling cores and from inland traverses that gathered data on ice temperatures, density, thickness, ice-surface elevations, and magnetic and gravity fields.

IGY in Antarctica was an outstanding success,characterized by complete cooperation between nations in the gathering, analyzing and exchange of data. The international program of allowing all nations working in Antarctica to place scientific stations anywhere, despite prior sovereignty claims, led directly to the eventual formulation and success of the Antarctic Treaty of 1961.

Making Tracks to the Pole

In January, 1958, an Edmund Hillary-led expedition drove modified farm tractors to the South Pole. They were sent to lay fuel depots from Scott Base, New Zealand’s newly established IGY station on Ross Island, but decided to go past the last depot. They reached the Pole two weeks ahead of an expedition led by Englishman Vivan Fuchs using heavy tracked vehicles and a dog team.

What were the most significant IGY achievements?

  • Defining the system of mid-ocean ridges that encircle the globe, furthering our understanding of the Earth’s crust and the theory of Plate Tectonics.
  • Discovery of the Van Allen Radiation Belts. These belts surround the Earth at altitudes of hundreds and at thousands of kilometers above the surface and are significant to present day electronic communications.
  • The collection of synoptic weather data and observations of various unique meteorological and optical phenomena.
  • Developing a comprehensive overview of global physical phenomena.

Did You Know?

As a result of the IGY, twelve countries established more than 40 stations on the Antarctic Continent and another 20 on the sub-Antarctic islands.

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