The First International Polar Year 18821883

In August 1874, Captain Karl Weyprecht (1838-1881) (Figs. 2.1 and 2.2) returned from an Arctic expedition, of which he was leader. The

Figure 2.1: Carl Weyprecht (1838-1881) ideas initiated the first IPY (photo courtesy: Archive, Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research).

Austro-Hungarian North Pole Expedition (1871-1874) aimed to explore the northwest of Nowaja Semlja, in the search for the Northeast Passage. During that Arctic expedition on the ice-strengthened schooner 'Admiral Tegetthoff, they discovered Franz Joseph Land (890 km from the North Pole) and gathered valuable information about the drift of icebergs and about meteorological and magnetic conditions in the Arctic. Although it was a successful expedition, it occurred to Weyprecht that single nation expeditions of this nature, often having geographical discovery as their primary goal, could only advance the frontiers of scientific knowledge to a limited extent. Knowing that answers to the fundamental questions of meteorology and geophysics were most likely to be found near the Earth's poles, Weyprecht

Figure 2.2: The cover page of the 'Illustrierten Wiener Extrablattes' (Viennese Illustrated Special Edition), 25 September 1874. The cover heralds the return of the leaders of the Austro-Hungarian North Pole Expeditions, Carl Weyprecht and Julius Payer.

became an avid advocate of internationally coordinated exploration of the polar regions; his views were influential in the formation of the largest coordinated series of scientific expeditions taken in the polar regions during the nineteenth century, namely what is now known as the first IPY of 1882-1883.

During the 48th Meeting of 'German Naturalists and Physicians' in Graz (18 September 1875), Weyprecht gave a lecture about the 'Basic principles of Arctic research', in which he suggested establishing a network of fixed Arctic observation stations (Baker, 1982).

In 1879, during the second International Meteorological Conference in Rome, these ideas were presented together with those of Georg von Neumayer (1826-1909), first Director of the German Hydrographic Office in Hamburg. Here it was recommended to discuss the erection of a number of observatories in the Arctic and Antarctic for simultaneous hourly meteorological and magnetic observations around the poles.

These ideas generated international interest and, during the first International Polar Conference at the German Hydrographical Office in Hamburg (1-5 October 1879), an organising body called the International Polar Commission, chaired by Neumayer, 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. During that conference, the first IPY was planned for the biennium 1881-1882. The following year, during the second International Polar Conference in Bern (7-9 August 1880) this commission agreed to postpone the IPY and declared that it would be held in 1882-1883 to coincide with a transit of Venus across the face of the Sun, on 6 December 1882. In doing so simultaneous observations from different places on the globe could be made to calculate the astronomical unit (AU = nearly 150 million kilometres; the distance between the Earth and Sun).

Between 1 and 8 August 1881, during the third International Polar Conference, held in St. Petersburg, and 5 months after Weyprecht's death on 29th March 1881 in Michelstadt, the International Polar Commission outlined the details of the first IPY, to last from 1 August 1882 until 1 September 1883 (Heathcote and Armitage, 1959).

In total, 12 countries participated in the first IPY resulting in 15 coordinated expeditions to the poles (13 to the Arctic, and 2 to peri-Antarctic islands). Fourteen research stations were established (Fig. 2.3) where researchers conducted experiments and gathered data (hourly records) over the course of the year that would greatly enhance the basis of then current knowledge of the Earth's magnetic field, surface weather conditions and astronomy. Two of these stations were in the Southern Hemisphere: Orange Bay at the southern tip of Tierra del Fuego (established by France) and Moltke-Hafen at Royal Bay, South Georgia (established by Germany). Another 34 permanent stations were located outside Polar territories (e.g. Shanghai, Rio de Janeiro, Bombay) bringing the number of stations participating in the IPY to 48. This first IPY was primarily focused on




Haut or STATION.






British & Canadian United States


King&va Fiord


Godthaab Fort Kae Point Barrqw

Marie Muss Bay .. Cape Thordsen

Sagastir Island

Cumberland Inlet, Davis Strait

Labrador Coast Cow of Greenland.. Great Slave Lake .. Alaska

Jan Mayen Island..

Spitsbergen.. Moller Bay, Novaia Lena Delta .. Near Mouth or


»S* 30' E. ai* 36' K. 53* "'E. 114* 43' E. 8s" o'E.

DrW. Giese

Lieut. Wohlgemuth

Mr Eekholm

Mr Steen

Lieut. AndieieBT..

Professor Snellen

Carried out International programme Made important geographical discoveries and explorations in Grin-nell Land and North Coast of Greenland, going farther north than any preceding Arctic expedition.

Carried out International programme, Also important ethnological information regarding Eskimos.

Carried out International programme.

arid obtained valuable observations on the geography and natural his-lory of the region.

Carned out programme. Made a collection of photographs and specimens of flora and lam,» of district.

Carried out International programme. Do.

Together with geographical research.

The first season's programme was successfully carried out.

Meteorological observations while beset in the ice at Waigat Strait.

Owing to the failure of the rescue party to meet the expedition as appointed, they had to endure the greatest hardships and sufferings for nine months, until relieved by Capt. Schley in June 188*, when Lieut. Greely and six of the men were the only survivors.

No mishaps.

One death by accident.

The partv volunteered for a second year's observations.

The 'Vama' was beset in the tee at Waigat Strait, & the expedition did not rcachits destination.They were rescued by the s i. 'Obi' inSep«. i 8a3.

Figure 2.3: North polar chart, showing Arctic research stations during the first IPY. During the first IPY, eleven nations established fourteen principal research stations across the polar regions. Twelve stations were in the Arctic and two stations were in the Antarctic region (map from the Scottish Geographical Magazine, Volume I, No. 12, 1885 and scanned by the University of Texas Libraries at

physics - especially meteorology, magnetism and auroral studies, rather than on interdisciplinary work, but its investigations did extend, though locally and in a limited fashion, to other fields like botany, geology and zoology. One of the most significant results of the first IPY was the mapping of the Aurora Borealis - known at the time as the Northern Lights - showing that it often occurs in an almost circular belt centred on the north magnetic pole.

A huge amount of polar data for that epoch became available to scientists. In the manner of the times, the data analysis was largely confined to the primary single disciplines that were the focus for the IPY - meteorology, geomagnetism, auroral observations. Unfortunately there was no central archive for the data and no organisation to facilitate exchange of information. As a result, no major attempts were made to synthesise the information obtained, although some scientists did manage to pull together data from others to support their own individual studies of geomagnetism and auroras. Nonetheless, the first IPY is regarded as an epoch-making event in which a major step forward was made in environmental scientific knowledge of importance not just for the polar regions but for the Earth as a whole.

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