IGY History

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Ceremonial South Pole

The IGY was a year and a half of comprehensive global geophysical activities with 67 nations cooperating scientifically.  The International Council of Scientific Unions, which functioned as an apolitical, nonnationalistic, scientifically oriented entity, oversaw this international scientific endeavor from July 1957 to December 1958.  In the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) IGY Program Report, this 1.5 year program goal was:  "...to observe geophysical phenomena and to secure data from all parts of the world; to conduct this effort on a coordinated basis by fields, and in a space and time, so that results could be collated in a meaningful manner."  The IGY advanced our understanding of the earth, our atmosphere and had a significant effect on the future of the Antarctic Continent.

The IGY was modeled on the two previous Polar Years, 1882 - 1883 and 1932 - 1933, where coordinated scientific studies were conducted to understand our planet's natural processes and cycles.  The Polar Years were 50 years apart, with Polar Year III scheduled for 1982.  Yet the initiator of the IGY, Lloyd Berkner, recognized a maximum sunspot cycle, between 1957 to 1958, too significant not to thoroughly examine.  This natural cycle along with the advances in technology and the project's global focus made 1957 to 1958 a period of increased global understanding.  The most significant IGY achievements were:

These achievements were accomplished through organization of various scientific fields under the International Council of Scientific Unions.  This union created a series of technical panels with scientific goals and facilitated international cooperation.  The technical panels were in the following scientific fields:  Auroras, Airglow, Cosmic Rays, Geomagnetism, Glaciology, Gravity, Ionosphere Physics, Longitude and Latitude Determinations, Meteorology, Oceanography, Rocketry, Seismology, and Solar Activity.

Under the collection of synoptic data, special attention was given to the Antarctic Continent.  Neither the race for the South Pole in the early 1900's nor the age of exploration in the 1930's brought the influx of humanity experienced during the IGY to the ice covered continent.  Through cooperative agreements, twelve countries with research stations on the ice or neighboring islands provided the following significant advancements: 

The original 12 countries and number of bases are provided below (J. T. Wilson, 1961).

IGY Stations

Continent or Nation Ice Shelf On Islands
Argentina    3 5
Australia  2 1
Belgium    1 0
Chile  2 2
France 2 1
Japan 1 0
New Zealand 1 1
Norway 1 0
South Africa  0 3
United Kingdom 9 6
United States 6 0
United States/New Zealand  1 0
USSR 7 0
Total Bases during IGY: 36 19

The scientific cooperation in Antarctica paved the way for the Antarctic Treaty.  The treaty signed December 1, 1959, created a continent free from nuclear weapons and open to scientific research; the first truly international territory.  By 1996, 41 nations representing more than 80% of the world population had signed the treaty.  27 of the 41 nations are full voting members of the treaty organization.  For the treaty to be altered/changed there must be a unanimous agreement of these voting members.


Wilson, J. T.  1961.  I.G.Y.  The Year of the New Moons.  Alfred A. Knopf, New York.

"Antarctic Treaty,"  2001.  Microsoft Encarta Online Encyclopedia.  http://encarta.msn.com

 "International Geophysical Year,"  2001.  Microsoft Encarta Online Encyclopedia. http://encarta.msn.com

"International Geophysical Year,"  2000.  Encyclopedia Britannica.  http://britannica.com

"International Geophysical Year,"  2001.  National Academy of Science.  http://www.nas.edu/history/igy