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International Geophysical Year

Even its name needs explanation. It is more than a year: eighteen months, from July, 1957, through December, 1958. It is more than geophysical. The prefix geo comes from the ancient Greek word for the earth, and identifies the earth sciences of geology, geography, geodesy and geophysics. But the Year's programme also involves astronomy, meteorology, oceanography, glaciology and other sciences that contribute physical studies of the earth and of its environment in space. It is also rather more than international, for the 66 nations that are participating in it include almost all countries that are capable of such scientific effort. It is a world venture.

The Year is certainly more than a period of time. An immense amount of research will be done high in the sky, deep in the sea and on all the continents by more than 5,000 scientists at an estimated cost of some $500,000,000. The Year is in fact an organized global campaign to observe and measure features of the earth and its vicinity that have heretofore been beyond man's reach.

The investigations fall into three major groups.

Most remote from the thin skin of the planet where men spend their lives are the studies of the upper atmosphere. There are electrons and radiations from the sun, the "'shooting stars" that burn and fall to earth each day. There the sun's rays are filtered and electrically charged atoms form a mirror for the reflection of radio waves. Least understood are the cosmic rays from outer space. Here is the outermost frontier of our planet that must be mastered before man can sail through it and embark on spaceflight.

The second field of investigation is that ever-changing mixture of air and water in which we are immersed, the lower atmosphere. Its daily variations are the weather, determined by the sun's rays, by the evaporation of water from the oceans, thus by the temperature of the ocean waters and of glaciers and ice-fields. Differences in pressure force the flow of air from high to low. Hence the winds and the storms, impeded by mountains, lifted on high when there is no place else to blow, and cooled and stripped of moisture as rain or snow.

But the underlying causes of climate and weather changes are complex. They depend on changes in the sun's radiation, on the available water, and on unpredictable high winds in the upper atmosphere. Weather is notoriously local but its causes are global. It will remain a favourite but fruitless subject of conversation in every village until researches on the sun, the upper atmosphere, the ocean currents, the ice-fields of the Arctic and Antarctic, and simultaneous observations of air conditions at different heights and at thousands of points on earth and on the sea have been made during the Year. Better understanding of the atmosphere will at last permit reliable forecasting of the weather for weeks and perhaps months ahead and of climatic changes for centuries into the future.

The third major interest during the Year is the solid earth itself. Today only one area remains unexplored: the great Antarctic continent, nearly twice as large as Europe. It will be explored not so much to map its possible wealth nor for prospective human habitation but because its colossal ice masses have a profound influence on the world's weather.

But far more vital will be studies of the earth's interior as a basis for earthquake and volcanic predictions, for an understanding of the earth's magnetism and the strange variations in the force of gravity at different points. Such studies involve seismology and geology and the fundamentals of geophysics as a whole.

The largest benefit, however, will accrue not from any of these investigations in themselves but from the correlation between results from different sciences and apparently unrelated researches. There has never before been such a concerted and concentrated attack on the frontier of our ignorance. It will seem a different world when the Year is over.

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Septembre 1957