Between 1 July, 1957, and December 31, 1958, scientists from 67 different countries took part in the International Geophysical Year (IGY). The worldwide study focused on the Earth’s physical properties and processes, covering scientific fields such as meteorology, seismology, oceanography, glaciology and others. Not only did it lead to some of the most important discoveries of the era, but the IGY marked a turning point for humankind because so many nations put aside their differences in the name of science.
Before the IGY, two International Polar Years (IPY) had been held, one in 1882–83 and the other in 1932–33. IPYs concentrated on research in Antarctica and the Arctic. Due to the lead up of World War II, many of the second IPY’s objectives fell short and a lot of the data was lost when the conflict broke out.
In early 1950, a group of scientists, under the direction of American physicist Lloyd Viel Berkner, met to discuss the possibility of a third IPY. Because of WWII, they noted technological advancements in areas like rocketry and how they could be utilised for a wider range of scientific purposes, not just polar research.
The group’s ideas soon gained the attention of the International Council for Science and it created the IGY. The years 1957 and 1958 were chosen because they coincided with a higher energetic period of activity for the Sun. An early condition set was that all data would be shared between all participating countries.
As part of the IGY, the United States announced it would launch the first artificial satellite. The Soviet Union beat them to it with Sputnik 1 on 4 October, 1957. The landmark flight was praised by the scientific community but the Russians were also criticised for using a rocket that was designed as a ballistic missile. Technology only created for peaceful purposes was supposed to be used for the IGY.
A Cold War had existed between the US and the Soviet Union since the end of WWII. Sputnik caused panic in America because the USSR now had the means to launch nuclear missiles at any time. The Soviet breakthrough sparked the Space Race between the two superpowers and led to the formation of NASA.
After Sputnik 1, the US experienced a series of failed satellite launch attempts. They finally succeeded with Explorer 1 on 1 February, 1958. It’s noted for discovering the Van Allen radiation belts, a region of the Earth’s magnetic field where charged particles are caught. The particles come from the Sun’s solar wind and cosmic rays.
Included as part of the IGY, a joint English and American investigation of the Atlantic Ocean was conducted between September 1954 and July 1959. Scientists collected data measuring temperature, salt and oxygen levels throughout the ocean. The investigation is also known for mapping the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, a vast underwater mountain chain. Scientists found evidence that new seafloor formed in the ridge. In the 1970s, the milestone helped to confirm the theory of plate tectonics.
By its end, over 10,000 scientists across 4,000 research stations had taken part in the IGY. The Earth’s weather system was now better understood; new areas of Antarctica and the Arctic had been explored for the first time; the Sun’s surface and solar flares had been studied in greater detail than ever before and ocean depths, high latitude winds and phenomena like auroras had been measured.
The international cooperation during the IGY led to 1959’s Antarctic Treaty, which recognised the continent as a nature preserve that could only be used for peaceful scientific purposes. Australia played a big role in the treaty’s creation because it was (and still is) a leader in polar research.
The spirit of the IGY still inspires today and, as recently as 2007–08, a new International Polar Year took place where many countries worked together in the pursuit of scientific knowledge.
Australia in the International Geophysical Year (1959 Documentary)
Celebrating the 65th anniversary of the International Geophysical Year (https://beta.nsf.gov/science-matters/celebrating-65th-anniversary-international-geophysical-year)
International Geophysical Year – Britannica (https://www.britannica.com/event/International-Geophysical-Year)
International Geophysical Year (IGY) and International Polar Year (IPY) (https://www.antarctica.gov.au/about-antarctica/history/exploration-and-expeditions/international-cooperation/)
Rockets, Radar, and Computers: The International Geophysical Year (https://celebrating200years.noaa.gov/magazine/igy/welcome.html)