International Polar Year

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The International Polar Year (or IPY) is a collaborative, international effort researching the polar regions. Karl Weyprecht, an Austro-Hungarian naval officer, motivated the endeavor, but died before it first occurred in 1882–1883. Fifty years later (1932–1933) a second IPY occurred. The International Geophysical Year was inspired by the IPY and occurred 75 years after the first IPY (1957–58).

The third International Polar Year has ended, having begun in 2007, and continued until 2009.[1] It was sponsored by the International Council for Science (ICSU) the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). The chair of the International Planning Group established within the ICSU for this event was chaired by Professor Chris Rapley and Dr. Robin Bell. The Director of the IPY International Programme Office was Dr David Carlson.

The latest IPY brought about the most ambitious Arctic climate change research project ever undertaken in Canada, a $150-million (CAD) research program called the Circumpolar Flaw Lead (CFL) System Study. Led by University of Manitoba Professor David Barber, a Canada Research Chair, the project involved more than 300 scientists from 16 countries, including over 40 faculty members, research associates, graduate students, technicians and support staff from the University of Manitoba.

Based aboard the research icebreaker, CCGS Amundsen, the CFL project examined the “flaw lead” system, a circumpolar phenomenon created when the central Arctic ice pack moves away from coastal ice, leaving areas of open water. CFL scientists are working closely with northern residents to understand how global climate change is affecting the nature of the flaw lead system in the Northern Hemisphere, and how it is expected to impact the circumpolar Arctic in the coming years. The project involved over-wintering the Amundsen in the Banks Island flaw lead in the Southern Beaufort Sea, the first time this has ever been done.

Lessons and Legacies of International Polar Year 2007–2008, a 2012 report from the National Academies’ Polar Research Board, considers the accomplishments and lessons learned through IPY, finding that overall IPY was an outstanding success.[2]

The report found that IPY engaged the public to communicate the relevance of polar research to the entire planet, strengthened connections with the indigenous people of the Arctic, and established new observational networks. Activities at both poles led to scientific discoveries that provided a step change in scientific understanding and helped translate scientific knowledge into policy-relevant information. At a time when the polar regions are undergoing a transformation from an icy wilderness to a new zone for human affairs, these insights could not be more timely or more relevant, the report found.[3] The report concluded that the legacies of IPY extend far beyond the scientific results achieved, and valuable lessons learned from the process will guide future endeavors of similar magnitude.[3]


Bulgarian souvenir sheet commemorating the 2007/08 International Polar Year

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 trapped 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; infrastructure is sparse and the terrain is rough in polar regions (often consisting of ice blocks with crevasses between them). International cooperative programs share the costs and maximize the number of coordinated scientific observations. The IPY is the most famous example of such a cooperative program.


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 12 expeditions to the Arctic and three to the Antarctic. Twelve nations participated: Austro-Hungarian Empire, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Netherlands, Norway, Russia, Sweden, United Kingdom, Canada, and United States.

Tragically, 17 of the 24 Americans involved in the Arctic expedition starved to death during the Lady Franklin Bay Expedition, which was commanded by Adolphus Greely and was part of the first IPY of 1882–83. A supply ship was missed, leading to the disaster where several bodies were consumed by the survivors.[4]

The aforementioned countries operated 14 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 40 meteorological observatories around the world expanded their programs of observations for this period. Data and images from the First International Polar Year have very recently been made available for browsing and download on the Web. These records of the First International Polar Year offer a rare glimpse of the circumpolar Arctic environment as it existed in the past and hold the potential to improve our understanding of historical climate variability and environmental change in the Arctic.

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.

1932 USSR postage stamps, dedicated to the Second 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 of these two early operations were extreme, with the men spending less than 10 percent 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, renaming the effort the International Geophysical Year (which see). More than 70 existing national scientific organizations then formed IGY committees, and participated in the cooperative effort. The IGY took place from July 1957 to December 1958.

While the IGY had taken place when the sun was at maximum output, this was followed by an examination of the sun and related geophysical phenomena at the low point in the solar cycle, the International Year of the Quiet Sun (IQSY). This lasted from July 1963 to December 1964.

Princess Elisabeth Polar Science Station

File:International Polar Foundation logo.svg
Logo for the International Polar Foundation

On September 6, 2007, Belgian-based International Polar Foundation unveiled octagonal spaceship-like Princess Elisabeth station, the world's first zero-emissions polar science station in Antarctica to research on climate change. Costing $16.3 million, the prefabricated station, which is part of International Polar Year, will be shipped to Antarctica from Belgium (to monitor the health of the polar regions, using icebreakers, satellites, stations and submarines). Belgian polar explorer Alain Hubert stated that "This base will be the first of its kind to produce zero emissions, making it a unique model of how energy should be used in the Antarctic," Johan Berte is the leader of the station design team and manager of the project (which will conduct research in climatology, glaciology and microbiology), and the project unified scientists from 63 nations in 228 studies.[5]

This polar station was the main motif in one of the most recent commemorative coins issued by Belgium: the International Polar Foundation commemorative coin minted in 2007, with a face value of 10 euro. In the obverse of the coin, a view of the polar station with it three wind turbines can be seen.

Commemorative coin controversy

The Royal Canadian Mint's $20 silver coin, launched on July 18, 2007 has evoked one of the darkest moments in the history of polar exploration and rankled Canada's main Inuit organization.[6] The coin was struck to mark the 125th anniversary of the International Polar Year scientific studies and features a "world first" metallic-blue finish meant to mimic the Arctic's icy hues.[6] On one side of the coin is the customary portrait of Queen Elizabeth; on the other, 16th-century British explorer Martin Frobisher and a compass rose from his era, along with images of the ship he sailed in search of the fabled Northwest Passage and an Inuit man paddling his kayak in ice-choked waters.[6]

A mint spokesman said the kayaker is simply meant to represent the indigenous people of the North and their role in Arctic exploration.[6] However, the combination of elements recalls an infamous episode from Frobisher's 1576 voyage to Baffin Island and the tragic fate of an unnamed Inuit paddler who was lured aboard the explorer's ship, Gabriel, and kidnapped for transport back to England as proof of the expedition's success in reaching the New World.[6] The Inuit captive, one of the first native North Americans known to have reached Europe, was put on circus-style display in England and became the subject of portraits, including one intended for Frobisher's sponsor, Queen Elizabeth I, before dying — probably of pneumonia or exposure to European disease — only weeks after arriving.[6]

Coin specifications

Year Manufacturer Theme Artist Mintage Issue Price
2007 Royal Canadian Mint International Polar Year Laurie McGaw 15,000 $64.95
2007 Royal Canadian Mint International Polar Year (Plasma Edition) Laurie McGaw 7,000 $249.95

See also

Further reading

This proceedings volume features the research presented at the Smithsonian at the Poles symposium, convened as part of the International Polar Year 2007–2008. Copies of this book are available for free pdf download by clicking on the included link.


  1. "Polar Year 'hailed as a success'". BBC – 2009-02-23. Retrieved 2009-02-23.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. 3.0 3.1
  4. Calamai, Peter (2007-03-02). "Canada helps kick off Polar Year". The Toronto Star - Retrieved 2007-03-02.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5., Group unveils polar science station
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 6.4 6.5 $20 worth of painful history

External links