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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, ClimateScience.tv 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, ClimateScience.tv 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.

Roger Revelle in 1980

In 1980, Roger Revelle, then the director of Scripps Institution of Oceanography, was invited to give a talk titled “The Role of the Oceans in Earth’s Climate and Carbon Budget” at Lawrence Livermore National Labs. The talk is fascinating for several reasons. From an historical perspective, Revelle gives a great overview of how much we knew—and didn’t know—about climate science in 1980. He goes into depth on the state of the science, the uncertainties, and the next questions that needed to be answered.

What also comes across is how much Revelle really admired Charles David Keeling. Seventeen minutes into his talk, Revelle had barely mentioned theoceans. To explain this he said, “You said I was going to talk about the ocean, Dr. Batzel. I will talk about the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in the sense that Dr. Keeling was brought to Scripps in 1957 to do that, to make these measurements as part of the International Geophysical Year, and he’s been making them ever since, and he’s still at Scripps. That’s at least one way in which the ocean affects the carbon dioxide problem.”

His conclusion and discussion for how to deal with the carbon dioxide problem sound eerily similar to pronouncements made today:

“The dilemma is compounded, however, and this I can’t emphasize too strongly, by the fact that decisive action must be taken in the next two or three decades if profound climatic changes 50 to 70 years into future are to be avoided. And the reason for this is obvious when you think about it, it takes about 50 years for a new energy source to penetrate the worldwide market. If we are going to make a transition, for example, from fossil fuels to nuclear energy or to solar energy or to wind energy, if you think about that as a major source of energy during the next 50 years from now, you better start right now. Certainly, we need a 30 year leap time for any major change in the sources and uses of energy. Let me conclude, by pointing out the carbon dioxide problem has begun to invade public consciousness at a critical time, when the worldwide industrial civilization is beginning to be shaken to its foundations by the disappearance of inexpensive sources of energy. This is a time when critical choices must be made about future sources and uses of energy and the realization that all potential energy sources, quite apart from the carbon dioxide problem, have serious social, economic and environmental liabilities. Government and industry must decide whether to invest vast sums, of the order of hundreds, perhaps even thousands of billions of dollars in production of synthetic liquid fuels from coal or oil shale, an equally expensive and widely unpopular alternative is construction of many new nuclear fission plants for generation of electricity or production of secondary fuels. Nuclear fission, as you all know better than I, as a long term alternative to fossil fuels, depends on development and wide use of nuclear breeder reactors with concomitant problems of proliferation of atomic weapons materials. Energy conservation is another, at least partial, alternative, energy now used in transportation can be conserved by large investments in mass transit. With all that these investments imply the changed structure of cities. Fundamental decisions must also be made, whether to continue present patterns of central station generation of electricity and electrical transmission grids or to develop local community sources. In the bitter competition for dwindling energy sources, the less developed countries without fossil fuel reserves of their own will inevitable be the losers. This means, as I pointed out, most of mankind. Even development assistance from the rich countries to the poor ones is jeopardized because development of the poor countries will inevitably lead both to great increases in their demand for energy, and perhaps even worse, in their ability to compete with the present industrialized countries to acquire fuels in the international markets. There is nothing really cheering about this report on the carbon dioxide problem but I guess I am convinced, that for the moment at least, it is not a very cheerful world.”

The video was provided to us by the charming, wonderful folks at Lawrence Livermore National Labs.

Operation Deep Freeze: Early Ice Core Drilling

From 1955 to 1996, the Navy managed all U.S. scientific research in Antarctica. ClimateScience.tv uncovered this 1959 footage of the Navy’s “Operation Deep Freeze.” It’s a fascinating record of early ice core drilling techniques—with a couple of seismic blasts thrown in for good measure.

Click the “Film Log” tab above to read the Navy’s notes as you’re watching the film.

For more information on Operation Deep Freeze, check out:

1) LS J.J. ANDERSON, U. OF MINN. PULLING OUT WIRE ON TO THE GLACIER; WIRE IS LAYING ON GROUND IN FG.2) CU DR. E. THEIL READING A GRAVITY METER, HOLDS EYE ON THE EYE PIECE. G3) MS J.J. ANDERSON CIV. SCIENTIST WALKING TOWARD CAMERA WITH VIBRATION PICK UP DEVICES. R4D IN BG WITH DEAD ENGINES.G4) MLS MR. ANDERSONHOOKING UP THE PICK UP DEVICE TO MAIN WIRE OR CABLE; R4D SITS ON SNOW IN BG.5) MS MR. ANDERSON WALKING TOWARDS THE CAMERA. G6) CU HOOKING UP THE PICK UP DEVICE TO MAIN WIRE, BURYING THE DEVICE IN THE SNOW; TAPPING IT DOWN WITH HIS FOOT. VG7) ECU MR. ANDERSON HOOKING THE ALLIGATOR CLIPS ON THE PICK UP DEVICE TO THE MAIN CABLE; MAKES A HOLE IN THE SNOW WITH HIS HEEL ON HIS BOOT AND PLACES THE DEVICE INTO THE HOLE. G8) CU MAN WITH AN ICE CORE DRILL BORING AHOLE INTO THE ICE FOR A BLAST CHARGE; SECOND MAN COMES IN TO HELP. G9) CU CORE DRILL DRILLING INTO THE ICE, MAN’S FEET SEEN IN RIGHT. G TO F10) CU MAN TURNING HANDLE ON ICE CORE DRILL; WIRE AND INSTRUMENT SITTING ABOUT ON THE SNOW. G11) CU TWO MEN LOWERING ICE CORE DRILL INTO HOLE, ONE MAN LETS GO AND THE SECOND KNEELS AND CONTINUES TURNING HANDLE. THE MAN USING DRILL IS EDWIN ROBINSON OF U. OF MICH.12) CU MAN REMOVING DRILL FROM SHAFT, TAKES ICE FROM SHAFT, AND PLACES DRILL BACK ON, TWO MEN AGAIN LOWER DRILL. G13) CU MR ROBINSON KNEELING BY THE SHAFT. G14) MS SIDE VIEW OF R4D SITTING ON THE SNOW; MAN IS SITTING ON THE SNOW OFF PORT WING. A SIESMIC BLAST GOES OFF NEAR THE TAIL SECTION OF THE R4D AND BLOWS A LITTLE CLOUD OF SNOW UP INTO THE AIR. VG15) MS MAN KNEELING IN THE SNOW SETTING OFF A SIESMIC BLAST WHICH THROWS UP SNOW. G16) CU TWO MEN STANDING BY THE WIRE REEL IN A CRADLE; MEN ARE REELING IN A WIRE. G17) MS ONE MAN IN THE R4D HANDING AN INSTRUMENT TO THE MEN ON THE GROUND; MAN WALKS AWAY WITH THE INSTRUMENT; MAN IN PLANE STEPS DOWN WITH A LARGE OBLONG WOODEN BOX AND MOVES OUT TO LEFT. G18) CU ONE MAN USING THE ICE CORE DRILL. SV G