Science, People & Politics, issue 2 (Apr. - Jun.), IV (2013) Page 9 (Page 1 of issue 2)

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Antarctica and the South Atlantic, 1945 to 1957:
a British view from before the Antarctic Treaty System.

by Helen Gavaghan.

Research into the ionosphere was one part only of the International Geophysical Year of 1957-58 - the project which, 10 years after Ernest Bevin met his Commonwealth colleagues to discuss the Antarctic problem, would be woven into the Antarctic Treaty as an example of a peaceful scientific enterprise promoting international harmony.

"Article II
Freedom of scientific investigation in Antarctica and co-operation toward that end, as applied during the International Geophysical Year, shall continue, subject to the provisions of the present Treaty."

Extract from the Antarctic Treaty, 1959.

In hindsight one can see that the IGY's data may have kick started comprehension of the planet-wide working of the Earth's electromagentic environment, its geology, geophysics, hydrosphere and cryosphere. 67 nations from every continent participated in the IGY, including all those nations which by 1948 were involved actively in the Antarctic dispute, or about to enter the fray. The data collected during the IGY were shared internationally, and stored in duplicate World Data Centers around the globe, theoretically enabling scientists from every nation to have access to the same raw data from which they could build new knowledge and understanding of natural phenomena.

In the US, which was responsible for World Data Center A, the archives were located as follows:

  1. Airglow and ionospheric data. The Central Radio Propogation Laboratory, University of Colorado.
  2. Aurora (instrumental). Geophysics Institute, Alaska.
  3. Aurora (visual). Cornell University.
  4. Cosmic Rays. School of Physics, University of Minnesota.
  5. Geomagnetism, gravity and seismology. Geophysics Division of the US Coast and Geodetic Survey.
  6. Glaciology. American Geographical Society, New York.1
  7. Longitude and latitude. US Naval Observatory, Washington DC.
  8. Meteorology and nuclear radiation. National Weather Records Center, Asheville, North Carolina.
  9. Oceanography. Department of Oceanography and Meteorology, Agricultural and Mechanical College of Texas.
    In 1963 the College became Texas A&M University.
  10. Rockets and Satellites. National Academy of Science, Washington DC.
  11. Solar activity. High Altitude Observatory, Boulder, Colorado.

Co-incidentally datasets from nearly all of these fields are important for benchmarking detection of atomic testing against a background of naturally occurring phenomena. It is quite possible that in 1948 politicians responsible for carving out budgets already knew in general terms such data sets were needed for both civilian and military purposes. Certainly Ernest Bevin, foreign secretary, told his Commonwealth colleagues on 21st October, 1948,

"International co-operation would promote scientific activities for the common good."2

As with much else in the meeting of 21st October, 1948 the quote begs many questions. What would have constituted the common good from Bevin's perspective? Was the gun boat diplomacy which had taken place an example of hostility between Britain, Chile and Argentina, or did one, two or all of them have a third party in mind whom they wished to discourage, such as the Communists. Earlier in 1948, Bevin had, during a diplomatic exchange with the Chilean ambassador, termed the communists the common enemy of Britain and Chile. He did not specify whether he meant China3, or the USSR, or the ideology, or some internal faction within Chile. At the time of the diplomatic exchange President Videla had a slim grip on power in Chile.

What Bevin would not have meant with respect to science and the common good, unless additional surprises lurk in the UK National Archives, was that science could diminish the ratchetting of tension about to take place when Britain and the US lost access on 29th October, 1948 to sigint about the Soviet Union. On 21st October the Soviets had not yet pulled the plug. 10 years before the IGY, Bevin and his Commonwealth colleagues had some other purpose in mind for international science4. Of course in the field of basic science, having an initial civilian aim does not preclude that it can be applied in commercial or military environments. And in the early 1950s Britain would test its first atomic bomb on an Island off the North West coast of Australia.

Article continued on page 10.


1. The AGS financed the Finn Ronne expedition of 1947-1948 to Antarctica.
http://www.amergeog.org/history.htm (repeat, htm not html).
Accessed 14th June, 2013.
2. Gavaghan. H. (2013). Antarctica and the South Atlantic, 1945 to 1957: A British view from before the Antarctic Treaty System. Science, People & Politics, issue one, January - March, Volume Four, 2013.
3. The Chinese civil war was coming to an end. The Peoples Republic of China was declared on 1st October, 1949.
4. If Ernest Bevin was indeed thinking of the common good in the context of the Southern ocean I think it could be interesting to review naval logs and memoirs of naval personnel and merchant vessels for records and anecdotes of catastrophic natural phenomena.


Science, People & Politics issn:1751-598x (online) and Helen Gavaghan©.All rights reserved.