The First International Polar Year: 1882-83

Taissumani: 2007-05-18

By Kenn Harper

The International Polar Year began in March of 2007 with much fanfare and high hopes for a greater understanding of both polar regions and how they interact with the land masses and oceans that make up the rest of the planet and the atmosphere that surrounds it.

The initiative is international in scope and inter­disciplinary in nature. Alaska, Siberia and parts of the Antarctic are the most rapidly warming parts of the planet, and so the presumption is that they are a bellwether of what may happen in other parts of the world if warming trends continue. The polar regions, then, are seen like the proverbial canary in the coal mine – indicators of impending change, perhaps disastrous.

The scientific initiatives supported during IPY are heavy on the physical sciences but the social sciences have not been ignored, given the publicity that has surrounded climate change and its affect on native peoples of the Far North.

What has not received much publicity is the fact that this is not the first IPY. In fact, the current IPY is taking place on the 125th anniversary of the First International Polar Year of 1882-3.

Lieutenant Karl Weyprecht had been co-leader of the Austro-Hungarian North Pole Expedition of 1872-74. As a result of his experience on that expedition – which included wintering in the in the Barents Sea – he decided that polar research needed a new direction. Expeditions, he felt, were unco-ordinated and focused primarily on geographic results. They had become, in the words of one researcher, "a sort of international steeplechase," in which expeditions of various countries competed for the honour of a new "farthest north," only to be outdone by another expedition soon topping their achievement by a few insignificant miles.

In all of this, Weyprecht thought, science was being ignored. "Decisive scientific results," he wrote, "can only be attained through a series of synchronous expeditions, whose task it would be to distribute themselves over the Arctic regions and to obtain one year's series of observations made according to the same method."

Weyprecht pitched his idea to the Austro-Hungarian Academy of Sciences at a meeting in Vienna in 1875 and, having received support there, to the International Meteorological Congress in Rome in 1879.

The result was the formation of an International Meteorological Commission which convened a conference in Germany. Delegates from nine countries attended. An International Polar Commission was formed. Weyprecht's tenacity and vision had paid off. Under the commission's auspices, the first IPY took place, starting in 1882.

The commission planned the activities of the scientists who would take part, in meticulous detail. Work would focus on meteorology, magnetism and the study of the northern lights. Standard observations were made, and all stations adopted a standard time, that of Gottingen, Germany, so observations from all stations were able to be compared.

Fourteen major stations were established. Twelve of them were in the northern hemisphere, forming a very roughly defined circle around the North Pole. Only two were in the southern hemisphere. There were also a number of auxiliary expeditions.

These expeditions were a far cry from the well-supported efforts of the current IPY, with its air, sea and satellite support. Some of them, in fact, were characterized by hardship and privation.

Three stations were established in what is now the Canadian Arctic. One was at Fort Rae in the Northwest Territories, and two in present-day Nunavut.

One of those was the farthest north of all the stations and the one that subsequently became the most well-known because of the tragedy that befell the expedition. It was led by Lieutenant Adolphus Greely, and was located at Lady Franklin Bay in northern Ellesmere Island. The other was a German expedition to Kingua Fjord in Cumberland Sound on Baffin Island.

More on both of them in later installments of Taissumani.

Taissumani recounts a specific event of historic interest. Kenn Harper is a historian, writer and linguist who lives in Iqaluit. Feedback? Send your comments and questions to

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