The International Geophysical Year 195758

The idea of an international geophysical year was born by a small group of scientists in 1950 from an informal discussion on how new technology from the war, such as rockets and radar, could be used for advancing the science of geophysics.51 When they appealed for money, their ideas fit well into US Cold War military ambitions. This would be a way of collecting data in areas that would otherwise be inaccessible. In addition, the effort could be used to gain prestige in the ideological war between East and West. Some also saw the potential for using scientific cooperation as a means to thaw East-West relations.52

The non-governmental scientific organization ICSU was the linking point for International Geophysical Year activities. The initiative had thus moved from the meteorological community with its focus on weather observations to a community interested in more fundamental aspects of Earth as a planet. However, the WMO assumed responsibility for preparing and coordinating the meteorological research program. According to Miller, the "prior existence of international data collection networks and protocols, authoritative bodies capable of setting priorities, and institutional support for the publication of data substantially eased the burden of building a globally coordinated research enterprise."53 The structures for cooperation within the WMO were thus central for the international coordination.

Although climate science was not a major emphasis in the International Geophysical Year, the physical infrastructure that was set up for this initiative has been important to future climate change research. One example is the chains of weather observing stations that were established to collect data simultaneously. Moreover, all the meteorological data were collected in three central World Data Centers, which still play a key role in gathering climatological information.54 The International Geophysical Year also marked the initiation of regular measurements of carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. The data from Mauna Loa, Hawaii, displaying a curve of steadily increasing concentrations have become an icon to show the influence of human civilization on Earth's atmosphere. Weart has described this as the "capstone" on the structure built by early climate

50 Miller, "Scientific Internationalism in American Foreign Policy," 182.

51 IPY 2007-2008, "History of IPY."

52 Weart, "The Discovery of Global Warming" , International-3.

53 Miller, "Scientific Internationalism in American Foreign Policy," 200.

54 Paul N. Edwards, "Representing the Global Atmosphere," in Changing the Atmosphere. Expert Knowledge and Environmental Governance, eds. Clark A. Miller and Paul N. Edwards, 31-65 (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004).

scientists and the "discovery of the possibility of global warming."55 Scientists also started to gather data on solar radiation and in 1957 the WMO set up a global observation system to measure ozone levels in the atmosphere.56 The International Geophysical Year marked the beginning of drilling for ice cores to study what the climate was like in the past. Such ice cores from Greenland and Antarctica have become important tools for understanding the dynamics of global climate change. Logistically, the International Geophysical Year pushed Earth scientists to coordinate their work to a greater extent than before, creating the foundation of an international scientific community.57

The Arctic was no longer in focus the same way as in the previous polar years, even if new forms of logistic support made it possible to set up research stations in new places, including stations on the pack ice. Instead, emphasis was placed on the Antarctic, which until this time had been inaccessible to any large-scale scientific investigations. Air transport and modern snow tractors had changed the odds for successful scientific work on this continent and the International Geophysical Year was the starting point for serious Antarctic research. In the Antarctic, the International Geophysical Year also marked the beginnings of political cooperation, and as a direct result, negotiations began on what became the Antarctic Treaty.

The International Geophysical Year also became a cultural starting point for looking at planet Earth as a whole. In particular, the Soviet Sputnik satellite in 1957 together with later American space launches marked the beginning of the space race.58 Several writers have pointed out that the changed awareness brought on by looking at Earth from the outside has been fundamental for our culture, similar to a scientific revolu-


Using the analytical scheme of interactions among regimes and actors networks, the International Geophysical Year illustrates how formalized governmental and nongovernmental cooperation played a key role in creating a network of people and technologies that emphasized Earth as system and created a global view of the physical forces that affects its dynamics. Moreover, the scientific starting point was neither at the local level nor at the national level but now at the global level. The drivers were both scientific and related to the geopolitical situation of the time. There was a wish to understand fundamental principles of Earth as a system, but by using technologies developed by the military this became based on the political aspirations and organizational resources that were connected to an ideology of using science collaboration as part of creating a new world order.

55 Weart, The Discovery of Global Warming, 38.

56 WMO, "World Meteorological Organization. Milestones," (Accessed 1 Feb. 2007).

57 Weart, "The Discovery of Global Warming," International-4.

58 Weart, "The Discovery of Global Warming," International-4.

59 Mette Bryld and Nina Lykke, Cosmodolphins. Feminist Cultural Studies of Technology, Animals and the Sacred (London, New York: Zed Books, 2000), 10; Sheila Jasanoff, "Heaven and Earth: The Politics of Environmental Images," in Earthly Politics. Local and Global in Environmental Governance, eds. Sheila Jasanoff and Marybeth Long Martello, 31-52 (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004), 37.

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