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International Polar Year: A brief history - Inuktitut - PDF Version Portable Document Format

International Polar Year (IPY) 2007-2008, will mark the first initiative of its kind in 50 years. As the largest-ever international program of scientific research focussed on the Arctic and Antarctic regions, it will build upon a long and distinguished legacy of international cooperation and scientific achievement.

Only three other similar initiatives have been held over the past 125 years. During each of these undertakings, scientists from around the world came together to organize intensive scientific and exploration programs in the polar regions, resulting in important advances to scientific knowledge and geographical exploration. From laying the basic foundations of our understanding of nature's global systems to launching the modern space age, the previous International Polar Years set the stage for many other international scientific collaborations as well as a long-standing political accord.

The idea of organizing International Polar Years was inspired by the Austrian explorer and naval officer Lt. Karl Weyprecht, who was a scientist and co-commander of the Austro-Hungarian Polar Expedition of 1872-74. From his experiences in the polar regions, Weyprecht became aware that answers to the fundamental questions of meteorology and geophysics were most likely to be found near the Earth's poles. However, he also understood that polar phenomena could not be surveyed by one nation alone, and any undertaking of this magnitude would require large-scale international cooperation. Weyprecht's idea quickly generated international interest, and in 1879 an organizing body called the International Polar Commission was established. This commission included Denmark, Norway, Russia, Sweden, Finland, Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Netherlands, France, the United States and Great Britain, with the assistance of the new Dominion of Canada. The International Polar Commission agreed that the first International Polar Year would be held in 1882-83 to coincide with a transit of Venus across the face of the sun on December 6, 1882.

In total, 12 nations participated in the first IPY resulting in 15 expeditions to the poles (13 to the Arctic, and two to the Antarctic). Fourteen research stations were set up in the Arctic (three of them in Canada) and the Antarctica, where researchers conducted experiments and gathered data over the course of the year. They amassed an enormous amount of information that would form the basis of our knowledge of the Earth's magnetic field and climate. Above all, the first IPY set an important precedent for international science cooperation. The decision to coordinate with other nations rather than compete, and to focus on scientific endeavours rather than acquisition of territory was a bold approach that left a lasting example for future generations to follow.

In 1932-1933, on the 50th anniversary of the first, the second International Polar Year was launched, having been proposed and promoted by the International Meteorological Organization as an effort to investigate the global implications of the newly discovered "Jet Stream." The participation of 40 nations together with the advent of the airplane, motorized sea and land transport and new instruments allowed for even more ambitious research endeavours. Despite considerable economic challenges, due to the Great Depression, detailed observations were taken and experiments were conducted that resulted in advances in meteorology, magnetism, and atmospheric science. Forty permanent observation stations were established in the Arctic, many of which are still active today. In Antarctica, an expedition established a winter-long meteorological station - the first-ever research station inland from Antarctica's coast.

By most accounts, the living conditions for the participants of these two early operations were extreme, with researchers spending less than 10 per cent of their time on science, and the rest of the time dedicated to survival. However arduous the conditions, they did not discourage the continuation of the International Polar Year legacy.

Between 1957 and 1958 a third such initiative, the International Geophysical Year (IGY), was launched in celebration of the 75th and 25th anniversaries of the first and second IPYs respectively. The IGY was conceived by a group of renowned physicists who realized the potential of the technology developed during the Second World War, particularly rockets and radar, to facilitate advances in scientific research in the upper atmosphere. The results of the IGY are still felt today. IGY ushered in the space age with the launch of the world's first satellites. In 1957, the Soviet Union successfully launched Sputnik I, the world's first artificial satellite, which was about the size of a basketball, weighed only 183 pounds, and took about 98 minutes to orbit the Earth. In 1958, the United States launched Explorer I, which carried a small scientific payload that eventually discovered the magnetic radiation belts encircling the Earth.

In addition to the dawn of the space age, the IGY delivered countless other successes. Research conducted during the IGY confirmed the long-disputed theory of continental drift, forming our understanding of the origins of our continents and oceans. Also, for the first time scientists traversed the Antarctic continent, establishing the total size of its ice mass. In addition to scientific breakthroughs, a noteworthy political outcome of the IGY was the ratification of the Antarctic Treaty in 1961, which devoted the continent to peaceful research.

Given the technological advances attained over the last half century, the upcoming International Polar Year 2007-2008 promises to build upon the spirit of international collaboration and pioneering scientific discovery achieved by its celebrated predecessors.


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