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.