Then & Now: International Polar Year

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An international group of scientists established the first International Polar Year (IPY) in 1882 with the goal of collecting and sharing scientific data on the polar climates. Using standardized equipment, scientists from 11 nations took concurrent measurements from 14 research stations around the far North, hoping to achieve a reliable and comprehensive picture of the Arctic climate. It was the first time in history that so many nations had cooperated on a scientific endeavor, and it established international recognition of the importance of the polar regions to the Earth's climate. Three more IPY's followed, the most recent in 2007-2008, expanding to focus on the entire planet and even the solar system. The data collected at each IPY has helped scientists better understand the Earth's weather, marine ecosystems and geoscience.

In preparation for the first IPY, Lieutenant Adolphus Greely of the Army Signal Corps led the American expedition to Lady Franklin Bay in August 1881. Just 600 miles from the North Pole, this facility was farther north than any other international research station. Most of his 24 team members were Civil War cavalrymen who served in the Great Plains, and none had been to the Arctic before. After setting on October 14th, the sun did not rise again until February 28th; temperatures often dropped to 50 degrees below zero, or lower. Measurements From October 1881Despite these hardships, every hour on the hour they recorded data such as wind speed, barometric pressure, and magnetism, making hundreds of measurements each day. The mission ended in disaster, however, when the U.S. Army failed to retrieve the men according to plan, leaving them stranded in the Arctic for two years. The majority of the team starved to death. In June, 1884, six survivors returned home. News reports of cannibalism tainted the public's perception of the Greely expedition, and though Greely dedicated himself to publishing the team's data, it remained unstudied for years. Nations published their data individually, and a coordinated analysis of all the data gathered was never carried out.

Fifty years later, the International Meteorological Organization held a second International Polar Year hoping to learn more about the newly-discovered jet stream and mysterious magnetic phenomena. Forty countries managed more than 100 research stations, including a few in Antarctica. The results of their collaboration were impressive -- for the first time, scientists determined the depth of the Arctic Ocean and created a weather map covering the entire Northern Hemisphere.

In 1957-58, a third IPY -- renamed the International Geophysical Year (IGY) to reflect the work done in non-polar regions -- was the largest yet. Thousands of scientists from 67 countries employed technologies developed during World War II, such as rockets and radar, and yielded a wealth of information that revised many established theories about the Earth's geophysics. Researchers found new evidence to support the then-controversial theory of continental drift, and a U.S. satellite discovered the Van Allen Radiation Belts -- bands of highly charged particles captured by the Earth's magnetic field.

Most recently, scientists participating in the 2007-08 IPY focused on climate change and global warming. "Fifty years ago, we were motivated by discovery," said David Carlson, director of the IPY's international program office, "and now we are motivated by change. Then, we got the first measurements of ice thickness in Antarctica -- now we think that may be changing. 2007 IPY LogoThen, we got the first look at ocean circulation in the polar regions -- now that is changing." The global collaboration took powerful ice-penetrating radar to areas beyond the reach of one nation alone, producing never-before-seen maps of Arctic terrain hidden under the ice.  During the Norwegian-U.S. Scientific Traverse of East Antarctica, polar explorers traveled 2,000 miles from near the Antarctic coast to the South Pole and back again, through some of the least explored territory in the world. Their journey provided researchers with new data on changes in temperature and ice formation.
Since the days of the Greely expedition and the original 14 Arctic research stations, the International Polar Years have produced some of the most groundbreaking scientific work in meteorology, climatology, the study of our solar system, and other geophysical fields.  Working together, international scientists have discovered secrets about the Earth that no nation could have learned on its own. IPY data and the changes recorded at the poles continue to enable scientists to make predictions about the Earth's changing climate and weather.

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