UA Journey

Geophysical Institute History - Part 5

The University celebrated the International Geophysical Year commemoration in July 1957 at the Geophysical Institute. From left, Joe Pope, Bonnie Brittin, Jeanne Hume, Sandra Fuller, Albert George, Neil Davis, and C. Gordon Little

"Chapman-Elvey Era," Part 2

International Geophysical Years

During the late 1950s, the Geophysical Institute focused on preparing to participate in the important International Geophysical Year  (IGY), a worldwide 18-month coordinated project to measure Earth's physical characteristics.  Sydney Chapman, GI's scientific director, had previously partaken in the earlier International Polar Year research in 1932 and was instrumental in creating the IGY.

Chapman as president of the Special Committee for the IGY (CSAGI), arranged for the World Data Center A to be located at the University of Alaska; other centers were located in Europe and Russia. University of Alaska received all of the station magnetometer and all-sky camera data taken worldwide. Thus, the institute later became one of the two renowned sites (Fairbanks and Moscow) where the important combined data sets are still available for analysis, see link below.

The institute staff contributed to the IGY by developing several instruments and emplacing others that had been developed elsewhere, especially from the Stanford Research Institute. Some of the invented equipment for the IGY were the riometer (Little, Leinbach & Merritt), all-sky camera (Elvey), and meridian scanning photometer (Clark, Belon, Romick), forthwith they became highly valued international scientific equipment for many years.

The All-Sky Camera developed by Christian Elvery, Neil Davis, Albert Belon, and Art Schiavulli for optical observations of the aurora and other high atmospheric phenomena. Photo: Geophysical Institute

With the arrival of C. Gordon Little and other senior radio-physics people for the IGY, they had brought the idea for a relative ionospheric opacity meter, or riometer. Working with Little and his graduate student Harold Leinbach, Robert Merritt of the electrical engineering department designed the equipment. Riometers determine and record the level of exterrestrial radio noise to measure changes in ionospheric absorption of electromagnetic waves.

Christian (Chris) Elvey, director of the Geophysical Institute, took on the responsibility for developing an all-sky camera for use by the United States at its many planned observing stations in the northern and southern hemispheres. All-sky cameras can photograph the entire sky simultaneously, like a fish-eye lens, to produce multiple images and were used to photograph the aurora. Davis' doctoral dissertation, an analysis of IGY data, is to this day a classic study of auroral forms.

The first American sighting of Sputnik 1 (inset photo) at Ballaine Lake Mini-Tracking Station University of Alaska in Fairbanks. Photo: Geophysical Institute

Another research effort of the IGY was to launch artificial satellites for insight into the solar-terrestrial relationships. The Soviet Union's research satellite named Sputnik, carrying a small radio beacon that beeped at regular intervals and could by mean of telemetry verify exact locations on the earth's surface, was ahead of schedule. The American effort to launch, code name Project Vanguard, was behind schedule and over budget. The American spacecraft carried a Geiger counter to measure radiation encircling the earth. Data from this instrument verified the existence of the Earth's magnetic field and discovered what came to be called the Van Allen Radiation Belts.

Just as the IGY was starting up, the institute played a fortuitous role in a technical coup by the Soviet Union. The October 4, 1957 launch of Sputnik was the most exciting event of the 1950s, the beginning of the space age! The eyes of the Western World turned skyward and the first scientists to see the new object were graduate students Robert Leonard and Joseph Pope, with the converted interferometer (radio-telescope) to a satellite receiver, at the Ballaine Lake Mini-Track Station.

Antarctic Map from the International Geophysical Year 1957-58 and Buck Wilson (insert), the first person from the University of Alaska to research in Antarctic. Photo by Lesa Hollen

Listening in along with the graduate students were Robert Merritt, Pete Michelow, Gordon Little, Glenn Stanley, and Ernest Stiltner. According to author and scientist T. Neil Davis, at least one other person saw the first satellite before any local scientist. As Davis reports in his book "Alaska Science Nuggets," Dexter Stegemeyer was the first person known to have seen Sputnik just clearing the western horizon, when it entered the view through his open outhouse doorway.

During the IGY, Buck Wilson spent 13 months either in or traveling to and from Antarctica. He was the first person from University of Alaska to journey to Antarctica. Elvey had arranged for a position at Little America #5 on the Ross Ice Shelf researching the southern hemisphere's aurora. He used a meridian spectrograph and all-sky cameras with towers and domes that were heated to room temperature. Wilson, who was appointed to the faculty in 1963, made ten more trips to Antarctica in future years.

The Geophysical Institute also joined the sea ice research at the Navy's Arctic Research Laboratory in Barrow (NARL), the first permanent arctic research station, and investigated two major earthquakes. The Huslia Earthquake April 7, 1958 magnitude 7.3 and Yakutat Earthquake July 10, 1958 magnitude 7.9, and the latter caused up to 100 foot shoreline subsidence and cataclysmic waves that killed five people.

The value of the Geophysical Institute participating and the subsequent analysis in the IGY was significant. Many of the young scientists involved became well known in the worldwide scientific community, and influenced others who were contributing to the understandings of solar-terrestrial relationships. Being at the forefront and instrumental in the beginning of the Space Age, the University of Alaska arrived upon the worldwide scientific map and gained collegiate recognition.

Part 4                                                                                        Geophysical Institute History "The Beginning"      


American Geophysical Union of the National Academy of Sciences. Anarctica in the IGY. 1958. Geophysical Monograph Number 1. National Research Council.

Davis, T. Neil, Alaska Science Nuggets. Geophysical Institute. University of Alaska, 1982. Fairbanks, AK

Elvey, Chirstian. How to build. operate, organize, & interpret photographic data. The Alaskan All-Sky Camera. IGY 1957 Series. Vol. V. pg. 133-151.

Fitzgerald, Doreen. Institute History: The Elvey-Chapman Years. Geophysical Institute Quarterly Fall 1990.

Odishaw, Hugh. The International Geophysical Year. National Research Council. National Academy of Sciences. Washington, D.C. here and actual speech presentation here


An Expanded Sputnik 1 - Photos by NASA of the histoy of Sputnik

Geophysical Institute History website here

National Academy of Sciences History website here

Keith B. Mather Library for the Geophysical Institute & International Arctic Research website here