Climate Histories: The Restless Sphere – IGY and the beginning of the race to space

…to observe geophysical phenomena and to secure data from all parts of the world; to conduct this effort on a coordinated basis by fields, and in space and time, so that results could be collated in a meaningful manner. [1]

In the early 1950s, the American physicist and engineer Lloyd Berkner started to investigate the development of the Earth’s atmosphere but the lack of available data limited his research. He felt that fundamental questions about global-scale environmental processes would remain unsolved unless opportunities are created to collect data on a worldwide basis.[2]

Berkner, a man of great energy, decided to create these opportunities. With several colleagues, he proposed, in 1950, an international geophysical programme modelled on the International Polar Years of 1882-1883 and 1932-1933.  He envisaged a large-scale global programme of intergovernmental cooperation in scientific research, that would allow scientists from around the world to take part in a series of coordinated observations of various geophysical phenomena.

Lloyd Berkner argued that 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 was those which was developed during and after the World War II, especially the developments in rocketry. Berkner hoped to drew attention to the advances of satellites, an idea that had been promoted by James Van Allen since 1948, for studying various aspects of solar activity and their effects of the ionosphere.

Over the next years Lloyd Berkner and his colleagues’ efforts resulted in the 1957-58 International Geophysical Year (IGY), as it was finally called. It was the first large-scale example of intergovernmental cooperation in science. Eventually, in July 1955, President Eisenhower announced that there would be a US space programme.  Not long after, the Pravda, formerly the official newspaper of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, had published the Soviet intention to launch an artificial satellite and fly to the moon, albeit it wasn’t clear when.

The Congress allocated $13 million – roughly the cost of two  the B-52  bombers – for America’s entry to space age. The funding was hopelessly inadequate, and Eisenhower’s adviser Nelson A. Rockefeller, urged that the administration take satellites more seriously. “I am impressed,” he wrote in a widely circulated memorandum, “by the costly consequences of allowing the Russian initiative to outrun ours through an achievement that will symbolize scientific and technological advancement to people anywhere. The stake of prestige that is involved makes this a race we cannot afford to lose”.[3]   Characteristically, when Edward Teller, one of the members of the Manhattan Projects and one of the fathers of the hydrogen bomb, was asked on a television programme what the Americans should expect to find on the moon, answered, “Russians”.[4]

67 countries ended up cooperating in the International Geophysical Year. It was the first large-scale example of intergovernmental cooperative study of the Earth ever undertaken. The IGY was recognized as pivotal in the scientific understanding of Antarctica and  indeed it was then that the first substantial research program in Antarctica was established.

The  success of the programme was outstanding and paved the way  for the the Antarctic treaty  an international agreement which provides that Antarctica shall be used for peaceful purposes only.  It was signed by all the 12 nations that participated in the IGY  Antarctic programmes – Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Chile, France, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States – on December 1, 1959.  The IGY and the Antarctic treaty established a framework for future subsequent efforts to address global issues, from environment degradation to world hunger.


Sources and further reading:

[1] The aim of the International Geophysical Year , 1957-58

[2] Dian Olson Belanger, Deep Freeze: The United States, the International Geophysical Year, and the Origins of Antarctica’s Age of Science, University Press of Colorado, 2006

[3] Matthew Brzezinski, “Red Moon Rising: Sputnik and the rivalries that ignited the space age” 2007, Bloomsbury, p.93

[4] Allan Bromley, The President’s Scientists: Reminiscences of a White House Science Advisor, (Yale University Press, 1994) p.2

The Restless Sphere, special BBC TV documentary about the International Geophysical Year (IGY),

Image: A stamp released by the United States during the 1957-1958 International Geophysical Year Credit: NOAA