History of previous Polar Years

Filchner expedition 1911/12
Filchner expedition 1911/12

Going back 125 years: Why more than 700 men set out to the polar regions 

 

After seven years of preparation, the first International Polar Year happened in 1882/83. A total of 700 researchers from eleven nations participated in fourteen expeditions, only two of which went to the South Pole. At the time, polar voyages were still among the truly dangerous ventures, for example, only six of the 25 members of the American expedition to Fort Conger, located in the strait between Greenland and Canada, returned alive.

Above: The 12 Arctic stations during the first International Polar Year. Number 9 marks the destination of the American expedition to Fort Conger. Right: Weather station at Spitsbergen’s southern tip during the first Polar Year.
Above: The 12 Arctic stations during the first International Polar Year. Number 9 marks the destination of the American expedition to Fort Conger. Right: Weather station at Spitsbergen’s southern tip during the first Polar Year.

Of visionaries and doers: organisation of the 1. International Polar Year

Poträt von Carl Weyprecht (1838 - 1881)
Carl Weyprecht (1838 - 1881)

The International Polar Year of 1882/83 was the first large scientific collaboration of a multitude of nation states. Previously, polar expeditions had been carried out mainly with the purpose of laying claim to new territories and discovering new ocean passages, i.e. predominantly serving the economic and political interests of individual nations. Carl Weyprecht (1838-1881), a navy officer who had led two Austro-Hungarian polar expeditions himself, first identified the problem. By casting doubt on the value of isolated individual measurements for gaining a better scientific understanding of meteorology and geophysics, he opened the floor for a new proposal, expressed during the 48th Assembly of German Natural Scientists and Physicians in 1875: 'Research wait instead of research gait' ("Forschungswarten statt Forschungsfahrten"). His goal was a circumpolar network of weather stations at the North Pole. He envisioned insights into weather phenomena and fluctuations of the earth’s magnetic field through comparative analysis of coordinated simultaneous measurements in the region.

Georg v. Neumayer (1826 - 1909, Kreis) auf der 2. Internationalen Meteorologischen Konferenz von 1879 in Rom
Georg v. Neumayer (Kreis) auf der 2. Internationalen Meteorologischen Konferenz von 1879 in Rom

Another major supporter of international cooperation in polar research was the Director of the German Hydrographical Office Georg von Neumayer (1826-1909). As chairman of the International Polar Commission, he was the lead organiser of the Polar Year. Following his initiative, the Antarctic was also integrated into the research efforts.

However, the results of the first Polar Year did not lead to the desired scientific break-through. Also Weyprecht’s main objective – a collective analysis of all recorded data – was not realised at the time. Nevertheless, the project was a large success in that it revealed the importance of polar air masses for global climate. Until now, the significance of polar research is strongly linked to this insight. Scientifically, the Polar Year of 1882/83 was phenomenally important: for the first time in history, it was demonstrated that reliable collaboration of various national research institutions could be accomplished to the benefit of all participating countries. Ultimately, this provided the basis for subsequent global data exchange without which, modern meteorology for instance would be unimaginable.

Of ideas and scholars – The theories of the Polar Years

Alfred Wegener (1880 – 1930), one year prior to his death during a Greenland expedition
Alfred Wegener (1880 – 1930), one year prior to his death during a Greenland expedition

Eventually, it was the International Meteorological Organisation who continued the tradition of research networks. For the second International Polar Year in 1932/33, 14 of the 40 participating nations established research stations near the poles. This polar year was dedicated to the study of jet streams - strong westerly winds blowing approximately 11 kilometres above ground in the subpolar regions between the poles and temperate latitudes. A quarter of a century later, during the International Geophysical Year 1957/58, emphasis was, once again, placed on understanding the Earth’s atmosphere. One important result was the discovery of the Van Allen radiation belt. This region in the geomagnetic field of the Earth protects our planet from harmful solar and cosmic radiation by diverting this type of energy towards the poles where it creates polar lights (the northern Aurora borealis and the southern Aurora australis).  Additional research results  of the IGY included confirmation of the theory of continental drift, first proposed as a hypothesis in 1912 by AWI, name patron Alfred Wegener (1880 – 1930), and a first estimation of the extent of Antarctic ice masses.

Aside from polar research, the international collaboration efforts developed models for foreign policies and political peace processes, and resulted in the ratification of the Antarctic Treaty of 1961, a remarkable political success story.

Polarlicht und Sternphotometerkuppel auf dem Dach des NDSC-Observatoriums der Koldewey-Station, Ny-Ålesund en: Aurora, Lidar and starphotometer on the roof of the NDSC-observatory, Koldewey-Station, Ny-Ålesund

Beginning on March 1, 2007 and lasting until March 1, 2008, the next International Polar Year will be taking place. It not only marks several anniversaries, but the time is also ripe for a new cooperation programme. Advancing climate change requires an assessment of the status quo of conditions in the polar regions. How much and over which time periods have polar environments changed in the past? What is the nature of material cycles in polar oceans, and how do they influence climate and the environment globally? These are just some of the central questions of the research programme. Although, nowadays, the technical power for collection and analysis of data has been improved significantly, one aspect has remained the same over the past 125 years: no single nation can, unilaterally, accumulate knowledge to the same extent as a well-coordinated multinational research effort. The adventure of polar research enters the next round.

(Text: modified from Gerhard Niederfellner)