"Spandex jackets for everyone" - the International Geophysical Year

It’s June 1957, and Prince Philip is addressing the nation, warning about the threat of rising seas caused by melting glaciers.

No, it’s not some new alternative history science fiction. It actually happened. You can watch it on the BBC archive. It was part of a special BBC TV documentary launching something called the International Geophysical Year (IGY), the topic of today’s post.

In practice, the International Geophysical Year lasted over a year – it was 18 months – and was a little short of international too as China abstained. But it’s crucial to the history of climate change, and pretty interesting in its own right too.

As we’ll see, there were a lot of players and agendas involved in the IGY, but the initial idea came from scientists, or so the story goes. It was April 1950, and a British scientist, Sydney Chapman, was visiting Silver Spring, Maryland, just north of DC. One evening, Chapman sat with few other geophysicists in James Van Allen's living room, including Fred Singer (now more famous for his climate scepticism). They’d been discussing the International Polar Year that had been held in 1932 and at some point in the conversation someone pointed out that with all the recent technological developments like computers, rockets and radar, maybe it was time for something similar, but bigger – a massive coordinated, worldwide study of our planet.

Fast-forward to summer 1957, and it’s being launched by royalty on the BBC  (Eisenhower gave a US TV and radio address too, but there’s more pageantry and melting ice in the BBC version, so I’m going to focus on that).

The duke stands in the television studio, surrounded by maps and bits of scientific equipment, rubbing his thumbs with an awkward enthusiasm while he introduces a series of films about international environmental science. We go from the Antarctic to Japan, to Canada to what was, at the time, the Belgian Congo, via the Swiss Alps and a high school rocket society in the USA. It’s a bit like the bit at the end of Eurovision when the points roll in from different countries, but with less glitter, thicker beards, and a slightly different political subtext. We see fieldwork in all sorts of locations, scientists’ offices, lab-work and, finally, a rocket launch. Environmental science is presented in the mode of a noble (posh, white, male) quest, an adventure of daring-do, exploration and wide-eyed discovery. The politics of the cold war are implicit, but very much present. The same can be said for the politics of colonialism.

About half an hour in, there’s an especially dramatic bit from Greenland talking about an international project on glaciers involving Swiss, French, Austrian, German and Danish scientists. “Why bother?” the science presenter rhetorically asks the camera, all the time wearing sunglasses and clutching a pickaxe. “Well, for the last 50 years, the glaciers have been receding, and the high snow is melting. The levels of the ocean have been rising. If all the glaciers melted at once, the water would rise halfway up Nelson’s column.”

Today, imagery like that is pretty banal. But in 1957? That’s a while before the Day After Tomorrow.

The central premise of the IGY wasn’t fear though, if anything, the ethos was incredibly beautiful. People around the world working together to understand their planet. As the duke puts it at the end of the BBC doc, “the IGY is the world studying itself, but it’s also a much more than that. It’s a great experiment in world co-operation.” Prince Philip, the old hippie.

It’s worth remembering that this is before we’d put people in space – 15 years before Apollo 17 sent back its “blue marble” shot of Earth. One of the key hopes of the IGY was to use networks of research projects to create a sort of snapshot of the Earth. We couldn’t do that from space back then, so we’d have to find ways to piece one together by connecting a range of different perspectives on Earth. This ‘snapshot’ would be useful, but it could be inspiring too, a cooperatively produced image of the planet we shared.

The IGY could also be credited with starting the space race, in as much as the Soviet Union and the USA both launched satellites for the event – Sputnik 1 in October 1957 and, a month later, Jupiter-C. Unlike some of the other IGY projects, Sputnik and the equivalent US programme could well have happened anyway, but the IGY offered them the costume of scientific discovery and a stage of scientific co-operation on which to play out their more competitive show of military might.

We could argue all this hopey-feely stuff was always a massive smokescreen for Cold War plotting – although there’s a lot of truth in this analysis, it’s also slightly too cynical. As historian Spencer Weart puts it, a variety of motives converged to make the IGY possible. The idea of an IGY offered a lot of real scientific opportunities. Aside from the excitement of a big event acting a hook to get funding, there was also the argument that to study the whole Earth we really did need a broad range of countries to be involved. As a Canadian scientist puts it in the BBC documentary, “oceanography demands co-operation” simply because the oceans touch a range of countries. The government officials who stumped up the cash for IGY projects would have got that – at least in the USA, science policy wonks were up for a bit of basic exciting research. But they did also expect data to come out of the IGY too, data that could be put to use to both civilian and military ends.

It’s also fair to say there were also people involved in the IGY who honestly hoped the world might learn something from 18 months contemplating scientific cooperation and this shared planet we all live on. As Eisenhower put it, the most important result of the IGY was the “demonstration of the ability of peoples of all nations to work together harmoniously for the common good.” In the mouth of a politician, this is rhetoric, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t also a serious agenda fuelling at least some parts of the IG too.

In principle, the concept of scientific diplomacy the IGY came wrapped in is pretty neat. In theory, scientists want truth and, again in theory, are happy to work together to get it. This is part of the idea behind CERN and the similar Sesame particle accelerator – get scientists to work together on some shared interesting project and they’ll forge relationships along the way, relationships which can reverberate beyond just that project.

Except the politics of science aren’t that simple. Even if the scientists involved are just in it for the truth (if…), and they’re good at working together (again, if…), there are plenty of other people involved to make it about so much more. And you can hide all sorts of things behind scientific missions and conferences, and just as scientists can broker relationships with each other, they can work with a whole range of different actors too.

Take, for example, IGY trips to Greenland. These allowed scientists to study interesting clunks of ice, and for the US government officials who handled the logistics, it was a chance to learn more about routes to the Soviet Union. Or, when it came to oceanography, the Navy got data they could use to better move their ships around, and in exchange, the scientists could use these ships to travel to bits of the planet they wanted to study. All this data the IGY was to collect as it built a ‘snapshot’ of the Earth was fascinating for scientists, but it was also invaluable for military planners who would otherwise be limited to the data they could collect in their own regions, or trusting data they managed to get somehow wrangle from the other side.

In his book, Arming Mother Nature, Jacob Darwin Hamblin offers further links between the IGY and military imaginations. He notes that buzzword of the IGY was synoptic – this sense it was a chance to view together, and take a mass snapshot of the Earth. The IGY brought this concept of the Earth into military planners’ view, a concept some of them later ran with, at least within a 1960 committee chaired by Theodore von Kármán. As Hamblin puts it “while the IGY was concerned with synoptic-scale measurement, NATO was concerned with synoptic-scale manipulation”. All this data didn’t just help the military know more about the Earth to move around, the data could potentially help the military manipulate the Earth too, creating weapons which could dominate whole physical systems. Scientists could already disperse fog (indeed, Guy Calendar worked on that), but could they go further? Could blackening agents be used to absorb light and so quicken the melting of ice sheets, flooding ports? Could targeted nuclear bombing disrupt key food chains? Engineering, chemistry and even medicine had all been weaponised in previous wars, was it now the turn of environmental science?

Hamblin’s book is fascinating, and discusses interactions between environmental science and the military far beyond just the IGY, so I’ll let you read it for yourself if you’re interested.

For all the reference to sea level rise in the BBC documentary, global warming wasn’t explicitly high on the agenda in the IGY. Still, it offered opportunities to nurture research projects that has proved vital to our modern understanding of climate change. As mentioned in an earlier post on David Keeling, researchers interested in tracking the concentration of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere took advantage of some of the IGY money floating around to set up a research base in Mauna Loa, a centre which continues to collect data to this day.

IGY was a lot more than just the 18 months it ran. The years running up to it were crucial as a range of international scientific organisations worked together to plan the event, cementing relationships as they also built instruments, projects and research bases. And the IGY was always meant to have lasting impacts too. Central to the IGY, was the establishment of three data centres. Data collected in the 1932 polar year had been lost due to the Second World War, and new concern about how the ‘Iron Curtain’ was limiting scientific debate. As part of building the IGY they established the World Data Center system – one part housed in the USA, another in the Soviet Union, and a third divided up between countries in Europe, Australia, and Japan. Each host country agreed to keep to the IGY principle of open exchange of data between nations, and the idea was that each centre would eventually have a complete archive of IGY data. If one centre was lost, there'd still be a record. This data still lives on, managed by the International Council for Science.

Also established as part of the IGY was the Halley Research Station in Antarctica. There’s a lot we humans now know that we wouldn’t if it wasn’t for that base – the hole in the ozone layer, for example (though that’s another story...). Another key spinoff of the IGY was the Antarctic Treaty, establishing that part of the planet for peace and scientific research. Like IGY itself, there’s a lot of beauty in the simple principles of science diplomacy at work here, and also a lot more going on behind it too. And, while we’re listing IGY legacies, there was Sputnik too – inspiring, significant, and drenched in Cold War politics.

It’s questionable whether the money needed for something as big as the IGY would have been put up in a more peaceful world. Then again, as decades of pacifist slogans have told us, less war might well mean more money for research, so who’s to know. What we do know is that it wasn’t nearly as simple a matter as old Second World War technology being given the chance to be put to peaceful ends, or the world coming together despite the tensions of the Cold War period with a pure devotion to science. There was a lot more going on.

The cultural impact of the IGY is perhaps less than you’d want from such a massive scientific project – Sputnik inspired all sorts of cultural impacts, and Halley’s had it’s fair share too, as has Keeling’s CO2 measurement, but IGY itself is harder to trace. Still, there’s an interesting song about it from the 1980s, by Don Fagin. I.G.Y. (what a beautiful world) sings for the hope of sunshine-powered cities, a tunnel between Paris and New York, and, er, “spandex jackets for everyone”. It’s a slightly ironic and nostalgic hope, as if we naïve to even want or imagine such a glorious future in the first place. Which analysis you prefer maybe depends on how much you want a spandex jacket, or how comfortable you feel about the funding of environmental science letting itself be used as a cloak for military endeavours.

There's an exhibition about the IGY at the Polar Museum, Cambridge, until the 9th September 2017.