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The History Blog’s International Polar Year

The first International Polar Year (IPY) was a turning point in history.  Inspired by Karl Weyprecht, an officer with the Austro-Hungarian navy, Weyprecht argued that polar expeditions should be driven by scientific research instead of exploration.  Traveling to the farthest, coldest, most remote parts of the planet certainly require a sense of adventure and exploration. However, the idea that scientific pursuits were more important than just going somewhere for the sake of going was a major philosophical change.  From his experiences in the polar regions Weyprecht became aware that solutions to the fundamental problems of meteorology and geophysics were most likely to be found near the Earth’s poles. The key concept of the first IPY was that geophysical phenomena could not be surveyed by one nation alone; rather, an undertaking of this magnitude would require a coordinated international effort.  Although he died before commencement of the First International Polar Year, a dozen countries participated in 15 expeditions to both the Arctic and Antarctic, fulfilling Weyprecht’s dream and heralding a new age of scientific discovery.

During that first International Polar Year, the United States conducted two expeditions, one on either side of the continent.  One went to Point Barrow, Alaska, and the other went to Fort Conger, in Nunavut, Canada. This latter expedition was the northernmost polar site during this year and was led by the U.S. Army Signal Corps’ First Lieutenant Adolphus Greely. It is this expedition that the CECOM Historical Office will focus on. A wonderful collection of materials – including hundreds of pages of handwritten manuscripts by members of the scientific expedition – are part of the CECOM collection.  We will be highlighting this throughout the year, from photos of the journey to transcripts of diary entries. 

Beyond the advances to science and geographical exploration, a principal legacy of the First IPY was setting a precedent for international science cooperation. Subsequent polar years, in 1932-1933 and in 1957-1958 (also called the International Geophysical Year because research extended beyond the poles), as well as most recently in 2007-2008, were all inspired by that first season of discovery. We hope that this new miniseries will be inspirational to our readers.

For more about the expedition, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has a great website dedicated to the first International Polar Year.

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