Browsing Archive

June, 2012

Floating on Top of the World: The International Geophysical Year and Drifting Station Alpha

The International Geophysical Year (IGY) was a coordinated series of global scientific activities spanning the period July 1957 – December 1958. Sixty-seven countries participated in observations of various geophysical phenomena. The United States alone formed panels to study cosmic rays, aurora and airglow, solar activity, geomagnetism, glaciology, gravity, ionospheric physics, longitude and latitude determination, meteorology, oceanography, rocketry, and seismology.

While IGY activities spanned the globe, much of the work was focused on the equatorial and Arctic regions. Today’s film documents life at Drifting Station Alpha in the Arctic Ocean, the first long-term scientific base on Arctic pack ice operated by a Western country. (At the time, Russia had already operated six drifting ice camps, but little information about them had reached the West.)

The film, “International Geophysical Year, 1957 – 1958, Drifting Station Alpha,” was shot with a 16mm Bolex camera by senior scientist Frans van der Hoeven and scientific leader Norbert Untersteiner. Neither Frans nor Norbert knew anything about filming; they just pointed the camera and shot. They captured everything from taking out the trash to a rendezvous with a nuclear sub. More important, they captured the spirit of adventure and scientific discovery (and a bit of the craziness) that permeated the postwar era.

Frans’ and Norbert’s raw footage was edited by a colleague in Vienna, and Norbert lent his voice to the narration. In 2009 the National Snow and Ice Data Center digitized the film, which is the version you see here. It’s a must-see for anyone interested in how we first began to understand the Arctic and its vital role in our planet’s systems.

In addition to the film, shot an interview with Norbert Untersteiner in December 2011, shortly before his passing. John “Mike” Wallace of the University of Washington conducted the interview, available here.

In Conversation: John M. Wallace and Norbert Untersteiner

Norbert Untersteiner was a pioneer in polar geophysics. He founded the modern thermodynamic theory of sea ice, and much of our understanding of the role of the Arctic in global climate change can be traced to him.

Norbert came from the University of Vienna, Austria, to the United States in January 1957 to serve as the scientific leader of Drifting Station Alpha [link to previous post], the first long-term U.S. camp on drifting sea ice in the Arctic. Five years later, he joined the faculty of the University of Washington (UW) in Seattle to continue his work on the physics (specifically, thermodynamics) of sea ice. From 1971 to 1979, he directed the Arctic Ice Dynamics Joint Experiment (AIDJEX). In 1981, his work for a NATO Advanced Study Institute resulted in a comprehensive textbook “The Geophysics of Sea Ice.” He went on to serve as director of the Polar Science Center at the UW Applied Physics Laboratory from 1982 to 1988, and as chair of the Department of Atmospheric Sciences from 1988 until his retirement in 1997. From 1999 to 2005, he held the position of Sydney Chapman Chair at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks.

In spring of 1992, Norbert became a member of the Environmental Task Force formed by Robert Gates, then Director of Central Intelligence. He continued to bridge the gap between the scientific and intelligence communities in a group known as MEDEA, which according to the New York Times, “sought to discover if intelligence archives and assets could shed light on issues of environmental stewardship” (see full article here). Norbert remained one of the MEDEA leaders through 2011.

Shortly before his passing in March at the age of 86, filmed an interview with Norbert. It was conducted by his friend and colleague at the University of Washington, John M. Wallace, who shared these warm thoughts:

“I’ve had the pleasure of numerous conversations with Norbert over the years, passing the long hours on sleepless nights waiting for connecting flights on trips to distant destinations, carpooling to work in the pre-dawn twilight on our visits to the University of Alaska, talking at length on the telephone expanding on the “quick question” that Norbert had called to ask my “expert opinion” about. He was a keen observer of nature and of people, who loved to share his insights and engage others in conversation about them. He was an accomplished storyteller, drawing on his own remarkably detailed memories of conversations and events from the distant past and embellishing them with his charming sense of humor. These interviews are our last extended conversations, conducted in his and Krystyna’s home on Green Lake in the fading sunlight of a December afternoon. Although the most important thing in Norbert’s life was his family, these conversations are mainly about his work and the relationships with people in his professional life, starting from the time he was a student in Austria and ending with a project that was still ongoing at the time of the interview. Although science and technology have continuously advanced during his lifetime and the people in his stories have aged, Norbert’s reminiscences have a timeless quality about them because they convey his sense of wonder, amusement, and engagement, which remained vibrant until the end of his life.”

For more on Norbert’s distinguished life and career, visit the Physics Today website.

Ocean Babies on Acid

What happens to the delicate larvae of ocean creatures when they’re exposed to increasing acid levels in the ocean? That’s the question marine biologists Steve Palumbi of Stanford and Eric Sanford of UC Davis are trying to answer through experiments with sea urchin larvae off the California and Oregon coasts.

Their theory is that the increased acidity in the oceans—caused in part by increased CO2 levels in the atmosphere—makes it difficult for marine species to grow their shells. In this short documentary, you’ll see the scientists test their theory by designing and building a time machine in their lab, transporting sea urchin babies to the ocean of the future.

This video comes courtesy of our friends Dan Griffin and Robin Garthwait of GG Films and Steve Palumbi of Stanford University. We’ll be featuring more of their great work in the coming months. In the meantime, head over to the GG Films website and