First International Polar Year

US #4123 was issued for the fourth IPY in 2007. Click image to order.

On August 1, 1882, the first International Polar Year (IPY) began.

Early polar expeditions of the Arctic had been staged to find a northern sea route from the Atlantic to Pacific to reach the Spice Islands of the Orient.  In the 1800s, many expeditions were sent out to find items from the 1845 Franklin expedition or to reach the North Pole.

Item #M9356 – Denmark sheet for the fourth IPY. Click image to order.

A change occurred in the 1870s.  Austrian Naval Lieutenant Karl Weyprecht proposed an international effort to go to the pole to study it for scientific reasons. In a presentation about one of his previous expeditions, he stated, “Decisive scientific results 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 proposed that scientists from different nations establish arctic stations and work together to study the pole’s geography, weather, plant and wildlife, and magnetic and electrical phenomena.  

Item #M9354 – Finland sheet for the fourth IPY. Click image to order.

Many in the science community supported Weyprecht’s proposal and it was endorsed at the Second Meteorological Congress in 1879.  Later that year, representatives from Austria, Denmark, Finland, Holland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the US met to discuss the idea further.  They met again in 1880 and 1881, deciding at the latter conference to coordinate the First International Polar Year.  The year would run from August 1, 1882, to August 1, 1883.  The participating nations would establish 13 Arctic and two Antarctic stations that would operate for one or two years.  The timing of the IPY was selected so that it would occur during the transit of Venus in front of the Sun on December 6, 1882.

Item #M9352 – Greenland sheet for the fourth IPY. Click image to order.

One of the primary areas of study during the IPY was magnetism.  In addition to the arctic stations, meteorological stations, magnetic observatories, and merchant and naval ships from around the world joined in.  On the 1st and 15th of each month, they took magnetic measurements to get the most complete understanding of the planet’s magnetism up to that time.  This period also saw a rise in sunspot activity, which helped in the collection of this data.

Item #M9358 – Norway sheet for the fourth IPY. Click image to order.

After the IPY ended, representatives assembled once again to discuss their data.  They provided the first climate studies of the Arctic.  While they didn’t take steps to combine their data as one would expect, the first IPY was considered an important event, as it was a major step forward in scientific study, especially as an international effort.

Item #M9357 – Sweden sheet for the fourth IPY. Click image to order.

Fifty years after the first IPY, a second one was held from 1932-33.  Forty-four countries joined in this time, studying meteorology, magnetism, atmospheric science, and the ionosphere, which helped advance radio technology. 

US #1107 was issued for the 1958 International Geophysical Year. Click image to order.

A third IPY called the International Geophysical Year was held from July 1, 1957, to December 31, 1958.  This IPY involved 67 countries studying a wide range of sciences including aurora, airglow, cosmic rays, gravity, oceanography, seismology, and solar activity.  The US and the Soviet Union also launched the world’s first artificial satellites.

Item #6A376 – Canada First Day Cover for the 1958 Geophysical Year.  Click image to order.

The fourth IPY was held from 2007 to 2008. It included 50,000 researchers from over 60 countries working on 228 projects.  It was the largest study of the Polar Regions in history.  In recent years, the IPY database was established to collect all of the information from all four IPYs.  New information is regularly added.

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  1. Very educational article. I now know much more about the IPY than I knew before. Keep up the good work Mystic, we all appreciate it.

  2. Interesting article about an event I never heard of before. Do vaguely remember about the 3rd IGY back when I was ten in elementary school

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