About IPY > History of International Polar Year

History of International Polar Year

Introducing the U.S. Senate resolution that paved the way for U.S. participation in the International Polar Year 2007-2008, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., stressed the benefits to all mankind that derived from research carried during previous International Polar Years--including the most recent Polar year, which was expanded into the 1957 International Geophysical Year (IGY)--and the possibilities for scientific advancement inherent in a new Polar Year.

IGY Logo


“IPY and IGY have left a legacy of scientific advancements, new discoveries, and international goodwill that continue to benefit societies today," he said. "They have made significant contributions to enhancing our understanding of the processes of environmental change and variability. In order to accurately access and monitor changes in the Earth's climate, environments, and ecosystems, it is imperative that we give adequate attention and resources to understanding these processes. Examining environmental changes in the past will strengthen our abilities to make informed decisions for the future.”

The International Polar Year (IPY) 2007-2008 builds on three previous international science years, IPY 1882, IPY 1932, and the IGY. Each opened new scientific and physical frontiers and added to the catalogue of knowledge about the physical nature of the planet and its atmosphere. Polar year discoveries were not limited to learning about the the Polar regions, but also extended to new insights into global climate, the amount of ice covering the planet and other physical processes. The 1957 IGY changed the face of modern geoscience.

For a more detailed discussion of the significance of IGY, see the National Academy of Sciences Web site.

Main building, front view, U.S. Signal Station, Point Barrow Expedition, 1881-1883.

US Signal Station, Point Barrow Expedition, 1881-1883. Credit: NOAA.

During the two years of the current IPY, public audiences of all ages, through classroom teaching or informal education and thanks to the telecommunications revolution which has occurred since IGY, will have the opportunity to share, and sometimes even participate in, the excitement of polar research and exploration. As part of IGY, the world's first artificial satellite was launched by the Soviet Union. IPY 2007-2008 takes place at a time when direct communication via satellite and other technological advances make it possible for a worldwide audience to witness discoveries and share in the research endeavor as they happen.

A family in Noomook, Alaska. Point Barrow Expedition, 1881-1883.

A family in Noomook, Alaska. Point Barrow Expedition, 1881-1883. Credit: NOAA.

The First IPY, 1882

The first IPY, from 1881 to 1883, was the first series of coordinated international expeditions to the polar regions ever undertaken.

During the first IPY, 11 nations combined to establish 14 principal research stations spread across the globe; 12 were located in the Arctic, 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.

For the first time, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has collected the synoptic meterological records of the first IPY, along with an extensive documentary image collection, in a single location in digital format. To view, visit NOAA's First International Polar Year Documentary Image Collection.

 Papers of Admiral Richard E. Byrd, RG 56.1, 7852_2.

Admiral Richard E. Byrd. Credit: Ohio State University Archives

The Second IPY, 1932

The second IPY was proposed in 1928 at an international conference of meteorological service directors. Forty nations participated in Arctic research from 1932 to 1933 (the 50th anniversary of the first Polar Year), and it heralded advances in meteorology, magnetism, atmospheric science, and in the "mapping" of ionospheric phenomena that advanced radioscience and technology.

This time 40 permanent observation stations were established in the Arctic. In Antarctica, the U.S. mounted 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.

Byrd's Expedition, Papers of Admiral Richard E. Byrd, RG 56.1, 7852_2.

Byrd Expedition. Credit: Ohio State University Archives

For more information on Byrd's Expeditions, see the Ohio State University Library.

The Third IPY, 1957

The third IPY was renamed the International Geophysical Year (IGY) and lasted from 1957 to 1958. The IGY encompassed 11 Earth sciences: aurora and airglow, cosmic rays, geomagnetism, glaciology, gravity, ionospheric physics, longitude and latitude determinations (precision mapping), meteorology, oceanography, seismology and solar activity.

Poles poster

"Poles," one of six posters created for the IGY.

IGY activities literally spanned the globe from the North to the South Poles. Although much work was carried out in the Arctic and equatorial regions, special attention was given to the Antarctic, where research on ice depths yielded radically new estimates of the earth's total ice content. IGY Antarctic research also contributed to improved meteorological prediction, advances in the theoretical analysis of glaciers, and better understanding of seismological phenomena in the Southern Hemisphere.

Sixty-seven nations conducted research during IGY, with 12 nations maintaining 65 stations in Antarctica. A notable political result founded on the IGY was ratification of the Antarctic Treaty in 1961, which uniquely set aside an entire continent for peaceful purposes, specifically scientific exploration.