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International Geophysical Year

The International Geophysical Year or IGY was an international scientific effort that lasted from July 1, 1957 to December 1958. The IGY was chosen to occur during a solar maximum, to notice unusual effects of the sun on the Earth. There had been two preceding International Polar Years, from 1882 to 1883 and from 1932-33.

The IGY encompassed eleven Earth sciences: aurora and airglow, cosmic rays, geomagnetism, glaciology, gravity, ionospheric physics, longitude and latitude determinations (precision mapping), meteorology, oceanography, seismology and solar activity.

Both the U.S and the Soviet Union launched early satellites for this event. Significant achievements included the discovery of the Van Allen Belts and the discovery of mid-ocean submarine ridges, an important confirmation of plate tectonics.

Table of contents
1 Motivation
2 History
3 External links


The polar areas have many unique phenomena. Circulatory systems for air and water reach the surface, as do the majority of the Earth's magnetic field lines. Thick glaciers have entrapped air and water from ancient times. It is easiest to observe these phenomena near the poles.

Unfortunately, the poles are expensive places to visit, because they are distant, cold and deserted. International cooperative programs share the costs, and maximize the amount of coordinated scientific observations. The IGY is the most famous example.


The first international polar year was proposed by Georg Neumayer and inspired by an Austro-Hungarian naval officer, Karl Weyprecht. They argued for a coordinated scientific approach, with observers making coordinated geophysical measurements at several locations during the same year. This would permit more views of the same phenomena, allowing more valuable interpretation of the available data, with only slightly more total money.

Seven years were required to organize the collaboration. There were twelve expeditions to the Arctic, and three to the Antarctic. Twelve countries participated: the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Russia, Sweden, the United Kingdom, Canada and the United States. They operated fourteen meteorological stations around the North Pole. Observations included meteorology, geomagnetism, auroral phenomena, ocean currents, tides, structure and motion of ice and atmospheric electricity. More than forty meteorological observatories around the world expanded their programs of observations for this period.

Shortly after World War I, mysterious, often defective behaviour in telegraph, radio and electric power and telephone lines began to persuade engineers and scientists that the electrical geophysics of the Earth needed more study. The airplane, motorized sea and land transport and new instruments made the proposals more interesting.

In 1927 a proposal came before an International Meteorological Committee. In 1928 the committee submitted a detailed report to an international conference of directors of meteorological services at Copenhagen. Part of one of the resolutions follows:

... magnetic, auroral and meteorological observations at a network of stations in the Arctic and Antarctic would materially advance present knowledge and understanding (of these phenomena) not only within polar regions but in general ... This increased knowledge will be of practical application to problems connected with terrestrial magnetism, marine and aerial navigation, wireless telegraphy and weather forecasting.

The conference suggested observing in 1932-1933, the fiftieth anniversary of the First International Polar Year.

The Second Polar Year (1932-33) program studied how much observations in the polar regions could improve weather forecasts and help transport by air and sea. Forty-four nations participated and a vast amount of data was collected. A world data center was created under the organization that eventually came to be called the International Meteorological Organization.

By most accounts, the privations on these two early operations were extreme, with the men spending less than 10% of their time on science, and the rest of the time devoted to survival.

In the 1950s new instrumentation, including especially rocketry and seismography, inspired U.S scientist Lloyd Berkner to propose a third polar year. The International Council of Scientific Unions, a parent body, broadened the proposals from polar studies to geophysical research. More than 70 existing national scientific organizations then formed IGY committees, and participated in the cooperative effort.

IGY is featured in a Donald Fagen song of the same name.

What a beautiful world this will be
What a glorious time to be free

External links