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Spotlight on Antarctic expeditions: The Royal Society International Geophysical Year Expeditions 1955–59

Standard issue IGY clothing belonging to Joseph MacDowall, meterologist at later base leader at Halley Bay during the Royal Society IGY Expedition.

Standard issue IGY clothing belonging to Joseph MacDowall, meterologist at later base leader at Halley Bay during the Royal Society IGY Expedition.

In today’s instalment of lesser-known Antarctic expeditions, we’re taking a look at the Royal Society International Geophysical Year Expeditions 1955–59. The International Geophysical Year (IGY), which ran from 1 July 1957 to 31 December 1958, was the third International Polar Year, and took place against the backdrop of the Cold War. We’ve got several items of standard-issue clothing from the expedition in the collection, as well as a very tattered flag flown from 26 May to 1 August 1958 at Halley Bay, during which time there were four gales.

The IGY consisted of approximately 2500 scientific observation posts around the globe, including vessels at sea, and involved roughly 60,000 personnel (of which 10,000 were scientists) from 67 countries. More than 300 stations were established in the Arctic, and there were 68 stations running on Antarctica and the sub-Antarctic islands. The major fields of research where in the areas of outer space, the cryosphere, the Earth’s magnetosphere, the ionosphere, oceans and the Earth’s crust.

The British contribution to the IGY in Antarctica consisted of a series of expeditions between 1955 and 1959 supported by the Royal Society. The organising committee of the IGY had noted a gap in the network of planned stations in Antarctica, and recommended siting one on the Antarctic continent itself in the territory already designated as the British Falkland Island Dependencies. This was of strategic interest to Britain and, with the direct involvement of the Royal Society, the Treasury agreed to fund the project to set up a new geophysical observatory.

The 10-man Advance Party, led by Surgeon Lieutenant Commander David Geoffrey Dalgliesh, arrived in January 1956, took formal possession of the area for Queen Elizabeth II, and established the IGY station at Halley Bay, on the Brunt Ice Shelf of Coat’s Land on the coast of the Weddell Sea. During the 1956 winter they completed the construction of the station and initiated a pilot scientific programme.

The 21-man Main Party, led by Robert Smart, travelled down to Antarctica with the Main Party of the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition 1955-58, arriving in January 1957, They had six months to build a major geophysical laboratory capable of meeting the UK’s commitment to the IGY – this included a generator shed, a non-magnetic hut, a balloon shed, a radio-astronomy hut and Decca radar. There were three groups of scientists – a meteorological and geomagnetic group, an ionospheric group, and a radio-astronomy group – and an auroral observer, as well as an appropriate team of technical support. By 1 July 1957, the scientific programme at Halley Base was well under way, consisting of meteorology, geomagnetism, seismology, glaciology and ionospheric observations.

In December 1957, the meteorologist Joseph MacDowall replaced Smart as official base leader – Smart was forced to return to the UK following life-threatening internal injuries resulting from a fall while skiing. For the remaining year, the scientific programmes continued and an all-sky aurora camera was installed. At the end of fourth expedition, Halley Bay station transferred to the Falklands Islands Dependencies Survey (FIDS), becoming Base Z. By the time they left Halley Bay in January 1959, the Royal Society IGY Expeditions had generated about 10 tons of scientific records. The station continued to operate under the FIDS, conducting essentially similar research.

The Cold War super-power politics and competition between the USA and USSR resulted in the establishment of highly symbolic manned research stations during the IGY – at the South Pole by the Americans and at the Pole of Inaccessibility (the point furthest away from all coastlines) by the Soviets. The immediate legacy of the IGY included the establishment of the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR) on 3 February 1958, the signing of the Antarctic Treaty on 1 December 1959 and the Year of International Geophysical Co-operation (IGC) which ran from 1 January to 31 December 1959 and continued much of the IGY’s work.

With thanks to Barbara for doing the research into the expedition from which this very potted summary has been produced.



  • Bulkeley, R. (2010). Origins of the International Geophysical Year. In: S. Barr and C. Lüdecke, ed., The History of the International Polar Years (IPYs). Berlin: Springer, pp.235–238.
  • Dodds, K., Gan, I. and Howkings, A. (2010). The IPY-3: The International Geophysical Year (1957–1958). In: S. Barr and C. Lüdecke, ed., The History of the International Polar Years (IPYs). Berlin: Springer, pp.239–258.
  • Headland, R.K. (2009). A Chronology of Antarctic Exploration: A synopsis of events and activities from the earliest times until the International Polar Years, 2007-09. London: Quaritch.
  • MacDowall, J. (1999). On Floating Ice: Two Years on an Antarctic Ice-shelf South of 75°. Edinburgh: The Pentland Press.

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