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The International Geophysical Year

Following a suggestion by NAS member Lloyd Berkner, the International Council of Scientific Unions in 1952 proposed a comprehensive series of global geophysical activities to span the period July 1957-December 1958.


The International Geophysical Year (IGY), as it was called, was modeled on the International Polar Years of 1882-1883 and 1932-1933 and was intended to allow scientists from around the world to take part in a series of coordinated observations of various geophysical phenomena. Although representatives of 46 countries originally agreed to participate in the IGY, by the close of the activity, 67 countries had become involved.


International organization and funding of the IGY were overseen by the International Council of Scientific Unions (ICSU), an independent federation of international scientific unions. A Special Committee for the IGY (CSAGI, an acronym derived from the French) was formed to act as the governing body for all IGY activities. Care had been taken to ensure that CSAGI would remain non-nationalistic, apolitical, and geared toward a scientific agenda.


IGY activities spanned the globe from the North to the South Poles. Although much work was carried out in the arctic and equatorial regions, special attention was given to the Antarctic, where research on ice depths yielded radically new estimates of the earth's total ice content. IGY Antarctic research also contributed to improved meteorological prediction, advances in the theoretical analysis of glaciers, and better understanding of seismological phenomena in the Southern Hemisphere.


Given the state of science in the late 1950s, the timing of the IGY was highly opportune. Research technologies and tools had advanced greatly since the 1930s, allowing scientists a scope of investigation without precedent. Cosmic ray recorders, spectroscopes, and radiosonde balloons had opened the upper atmosphere to detailed exploration, while newly developed electronic computers facilitated the analysis of large data sets.


But the most dramatic of the new technologies available to the IGY was the rocket. Post-World War II developments in rocketry for the first time made the exploration of space a real possibility; working with the new technologies, Soviet and American participants sent artificial satellites into Earth orbit. In successfully launching science into space, the IGY may have scored its greatest breakthrough.


Text: NAS

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