International Polar Year | The Canadian Encyclopedia


International Polar Year

International Polar Year (IPY), 1882-83, was the first worldwide co-ordinated scientific enterprise and the most significant single event in the founding of the science of geophysics.

International Polar Year

International Polar Year (IPY), 1882-83, was the first worldwide co-ordinated scientific enterprise and the most significant single event in the founding of the science of geophysics. Between 1 August 1882 and 1 September 1883, 15 expeditions, sponsored by 11 nations, including Canada, went to the Arctic and Antarctic to carry out carefully planned and simultaneous observations in the earth sciences. Measurements of magnetism, aurora, meteorology, earth currents, ground temperatures, geodetic location, tidal behaviour and atmospheric electricity were collected for subsequent analysis and added to the variety of other geological, oceanographic and natural science observations made during the year. By extending scientific fieldwork into the polar regions, the data from some 35 established observatories in Europe, Asia, and North and South America were greatly enhanced and permitted the first attempts at comprehensive synoptic marine meteorology for the North and South Atlantic oceans.

The planning and co-ordination of the observational fieldwork marked an entirely new approach to science as an international and co-operative activity. Both rigorous observations and the sharing of results strongly influenced the future concept of science in all disciplines.

Although the first IPY focused on geophysical research, the beginnings of arctic anthropology are sometimes attributed to follow-up research conducted by the eminent anthropologist Franz Boas. Boas furthered the German scholarly contribution to the first IPY by performing research in 1883 to 1884 on the traditional navigation, sea ice, weather forecasting and landscape knowledge of the Indigenous peoples on Baffin Island.

The second IPY occurred in 1932 to 1933. The third IPY, also called the International Geophysical Year occurred in 1957 to 1958. The global political turmoil during the second and third IPY had some influence on the cooperation between nations with different political agendas. Nonetheless, despite the turmoil international scientific agreements occurred, such as international agreements for a multinational model of Antarctic governance.

The International Polar Years have been interdisciplinary endeavours to expand scientific knowledge and international cooperation in scientific research. The Polar Regions are highly sensitive to climate change, and studying these regions can advance comprehensive global knowledge. The first IPY established that understanding geophysical phenomena required multinational cooperation. The second IPY investigated the meteorological jet streams and established the first research station on the inland of Antarctica. The third IPY confirmed that continental drift was a global phenomenon and not a disputed theory.

INDIAN AND NORTHERN AFFAIRS (INAC) created the Centenary Medal to mark the 100th anniversary of the International Polar Year, and to recognize Canada's part in this first international scientific endeavour. The medal together with a prize of $5000 is awarded annually to an individual who has made distinguished contributions to northern Canada through scientific activity.

In 2007, in recognition of the 125th anniversary of the first IPY the international community established a 2-year program of scientific research and education on the Arctic and Antarctic regions. More than 60 countries participated in the research, with Canada taking a leading role in the program.

Unlike the agendas of previous International Polar Years, the 2007 to 2008 research included social science research focused on the health and well- being of northern communities, and scientific research on climate change and the adaptations that possible for mitigating undesirable human consequences.

The 2007 to 2008 IPY focused on themes to quantify the environmental status of the Polar Regions. The themes included: understanding past and present environmental and human changes affecting the poles; advancing the understanding of global and polar interactions; using the polar regions to enhance observations of the earth's inner core, magnetic field, geospace, and the earth's place within the solar system; researching the cultural, social and historical processes of human circumpolar societies; and investigating scientific unknowns in the poles.

The IPY 2007 to 2008 was sponsored by the International Council of Science and the World Meteorological Organization. Canada has a Federal IPY program office and a secretariat based at the University of Alberta to approve planned research and coordinate Canadian IPY initiatives. Canada has developed a geographical information system (GIS) for planning and then mapping Canadian IPY projects. Both Nunavut and the Northwest Territories have strong interests in IPY research and have established IPY committees to ensure that the social and economic impacts of climate change, and the research activities of the IPY itself, incorporate regional concerns and do not negatively affect northern communities.

Specific Canadian involvement in IPY research projects includes studying the earth, land, people, ocean, ice, atmosphere and space, and providing educational outreach. The interests of circumpolar nations like Canada are addressed by initiatives like IPY that investigate the initial human colonization of the north, arctic biodiversity, hydrological cycles, oil development monitoring, community adaptation, traditional knowledge of Indigenous peoples, glacier response to warming cycles and modeling the cumulative effects of change in the Arctic.