Gathering the Cold, Hard Facts: Fifty Years Ago, the International Geophysics Year Kick-Started Serious Science in the Antarctic. This Month, to Mark the Occasion, the International Council for Science Is Launching the International Polar Year 2007-08, Which Will See More Than 200 Research Groups Comprising Thousands of Scientists from More Than 60 Countries Head to the Ends of the Earth

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During the mid-1950s, Britain was basking in the afterglow of the golden age of polar exploration. The expeditions of Robert Falcon Scott and Ernest Shackleton were still in living memory when Vivian Fuchs and Edmund Hilary, the latter fresh from his conquest of Mount Everest, set sail from Southampton in November 1955 amid flags and fanfares to attempt to cross the Antarctic continent for the first time.

There was much less fuss a week later when the MV Tottan slipped out of the same port bound for the same destination. On board was the advance party for the 1957 International Geophysics Year (IGY), an 18-month intensive science campaign on the continent. Among them was 28-year-old David Limbert, who had been drafted in at the last minute to help set up an Antarctic base that would act as a focus for science during that time.

"There was still a sense of the heroic age when we set out," Limbert recalls. "We even ate the same type of pemmican as Scott." There was also a strong military emphasis. In 1943, Britain's war defences had stretched to Antarctica when a small expedition known as Operation Tabarin had established bases for monitoring German warship activities. It seemed natural, then, that the advance party would be led by captains and colonels and supplied with ex-War Department clothing and Army rations.

The sense of isolation also tied these pioneers closer to Shackleton's era than to the satellite-phone-wielding scientists of today. In the year when the airwaves were buzzing with news of the Suez Crisis, the Prague Spring and the Hungarian Uprising, members of the advance party for the IGY were restricted to sending home a 100-word letter each month by Morse code. "For some men, however, the isolation was part of the attraction of going--it was a great way of leaving things behind," Limbert says with a smile.

Limbert was a meteorologist, but he spent most of the first half of 1956 as a carpenter's mate, fitting in his observations between spells of construction of the base on an ice shelf two kilometres inland from the Weddell Sea. The following year, 25 scientists took up residence there, part of a huge expansion of the UK's scientific presence on the continent and a global push to understand the South Pole's influence on the rest of the world.

The IGY also represented a quantum leap in international cooperation, drawing post-Stalinist Russia, China and India to a continent that has always prided itself on putting science before politics. More than 20 nations took part in experiments covering ionospherics, meteorology and the Earth's magnetic field, at an estimated cost of US$280million. Fifty-five recording stations were established on the continent, many of which are still in use today; Limbert's base has now become Halley Station, one of three Antarctic science bases operated by the British Antarctic Survey (BAS).

The ability to make simultaneous measurements across the continent pushed forward understanding of the aurora australis and other atmospheric phenomena. The spatial spread of recording stations allowed scientists to unravel new secrets about the physical nature of Antarctica, such as the amount of ice and the nature of the continent beneath. Its success stimulated a copycat initiative for biology: Antarctic science had come of age.

Ambitious programme

Fast forward 50 years and polar science is in the spotlight once more. This month sees the start of an ambitious new programme that encompasses both the Arctic and the Antarctic: the International Polar Year 2007=08 (IPY). Like all good sequels, this one is bigger and better than its predecessor. Involving more than 50,000 scientists and support staff from more than 60 nations, this is science on a truly global scale.

The mastermind of this bold programme is softly spoken Canadian Dave Carlson, director of the IPY, who works from an office at the BAS in Cambridge. …