The International Polar Year

The International Polar Year 2007-2009 (IPY) is about research. But of great importance is also the public engagement with polar science and the involvement of local groups and of ethnic minorities. The IPY should be a time for everyone to learn and reflect on regions of our world which few have visited but which are essential to the future well being of all of us.

The research and outreach projects planned at the Barents Institute aims at making the polar regions in general, and the IPY in particular, present in the minds of people. A point of departure in such efforts should be the awareness of previous international polar years and their legacy. Indeed, the attempts to make the polar regions serve humankind as international arenas for science go back to the very first polar year in 1882-83 and have continued through the following IPY/IGY years in 1932-33 and 1957-59. An overview of the joint international research effort of the International Polar Year 2007-2009 is presented at the web site of the International Polar Office in Cambridge UK. The reason why the "polar year," which started in March 2007 is one and a half years long is that it is designed to include two full summer seasons for field research also in the Antarctic where the second summer ends in March 2009. The Barents Institute is engaged as research partner in the following officially endorsed IPY projects:

  • The multidisciplinary collaboration IPY Kinnvika. IPY Activity ID no. 58. It aims to combine scientific and scholarly methods for human site and trace analysis on Svalbard, questions of human environmental impact; it includes three social programmes with international participation including archaeologists from the Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow.
  • IPY Programme no. 10 Lashipa the main focus of which is industrial archaeology and environmental history of whaling and mining.
  • Research Partner in the IPY programme no. 100 Polar Field Stations and IPY History based at the Scott Polar Research Institute in England. Research specialities knowledge construction History of Science

Background and status of knowledge
The public understanding of polar research has mainly been based on narratives of expeditions, and biographies of polar explorer, that describe a limited selection of persons and undertakings. Some recent studies have shed light on the importance of the founding of a popular polar literature in the 19th century in forming lasting positive attitudes to the so-called polar wilderness. Other studies of the colonial exploitation of native people and natural resources in the Polar Regions have scrutinised the interplay of economic and national interests at various times and places as part of a world order based on the principles of International Law and opportunistic foreign politics of different nations, that as a rule has had more pressing issues than the sovereignty of remote polar lands on their agendas. The research projects to be pursued at the Barents Institute as part of its participation in four international IPY programmes will, generally expressed, focus human extraction and construction of knowledge and resources in the polar regions and the interactions between western and indigenous this has included, in a historical perspective.

In the planned field work the remains and impact of coal mining on Svalbard will be studied, as well as Pomor fishing and hunting station of the early 19th century and the remains of some scientific polar station – all neglected institutions and historical artefacts. The aim is to demonstrate those activities interest as objects for social and humanistic studies of the Western ways of relating to, and intruding in, the polar regions. The historical cases of the IPY stations will be studied concentrating on the remains of those in Spitsbergen while also considering and comparing with polar stations elsewhere, including Antarctica. Some sites on Spitsbergen have been investigated already in the field by Wråkberg in co-operation with archaeologists of the internationally open Swedish Programme for Social Science Research in the Polar Regions.

In the Barents Institute share of the activities of the multidisciplinary, mainly scientific IPY Kinnvika cooperation the general research plan is to challenge the common notion of remote Arctic Islands to be peaceful oasis during larger mainland conflicts. Trapping, tourism, science and mining have all during different periods been partly motivated, or later appropriated by various agents, as tokens of colonial interest and territorial claims. The costal seas and the barren land of Nordaustlandet, Svalbard, the main field area of interest in IPY Kinnvika, bear proof of several conflicts, open or latent, in the form of wrecks and ruined buildings: old trapper’s huts and abandoned scientific stations. But also non-material remains in the landscape can be experienced by historical reconstruction, this include place names, maps, collectively remembered images, narratives and beliefs about the Arctic nature. In comparative perspective this often mirrors conflicts over the national, cultural or scientific meaning of particular sites. The flexible cultural meaning of Arctic places and spaces, including the ones of indigenous and local residents, prove that these remote areas often had a significant strategic, scientific and economic importance for the people and nations of yesterday.

The Barents Institute will be coordinating and executing the society-focused studies in the IPY Kinnvika programme by interdisciplinary co-operation in investigating the international history of Svalbard with a field focus at Nordaustlandet. The research will emphasise the interplay and continuity of both competition and partnership across national, ethnic and cultural boundaries, in the European Arctic. The region surrounding the old Kinnvika station of the IGY 1957-59 on Nordaustlandet contains a number of other polar stations from different periods erected for various purposes. Investigations focussing these different kinds of sites will aim at reconstructing the material and immaterial networks in which the station once was an intersection and to compare different kinds of stations often assumed to have very little in common. In the polar regions remains from human activities of the past have often remained undisturbed on the spot where they were once built or abandoned. Cultural influences over long time is thus often possible to discuss based on traces that have been better preserved here than in areas with more intense economical and political activity.

Interdisciplinary co-operation within IPY Kinnvika is crucial for evaluating the impact of erosion processes on the sea floor in various locations so as to find those places of marine archaeological interest that are most likely to be preserved from natural devastation. Benefits from being part of the IPY Kinnvika programme also consist in the logistical opportunities to share transport and equipment like side-scanning sonar with various scientific projects. Cooperation is also established with the LASHIPA IPY programme no. 564 in considering the 17th and 18th century period of whaling in Spitsbergen. The possible remains and traces on the bottom of the bay in Sorgfjorden from a relatively large naval battle that took place there between Dutch and French forces in the late 17th century, once again points to the importance of the area for yesterday’s nations.

The planned field research can offer unique information to further our understanding of particularly the older periods of Spitsbergen history for which archival sources are meagre or scattered in various national repositories. The researchers and executives of the Barents Institute who are taking part in the IPY are members of four international IPY programmes. The work and execution will follow the time lines of these programmes. Apart from research and outreach workshops, conferences and fellowships will be hosted at the Barents Institute to further and facilitated the programmes and publicly open presentations will be made.

The abandoned research station at Kinnvika, used during the international geophysical year in 1957-59,
Murchison Bay, Nordaustlandet, Svalbard. Photo: Urban Wråkberg.

"Continued their course west till the afternoon, then southwest and discovered that what they had taken for land was nothing but clouds."
Christopher Columbus

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