Press release

Carl Weyprecht (1838-1881) and the International Polar Year

[27. March 2006] 

Search for the Northeast Passage culminated in the International Polar Year
March 29, 2006 marks the 125th anniversary of Carl Weyprecht’s death. Carl Weyprecht, a naval officer with science education, directed the 1872 North Pole expedition, with the purpose of discovering the Northeast Passage. Following the loss of his ship and the expedition’s failure, Weyprecht appealed vehemently for permanent research stations in the polar regions. “Arctic research is extremely significant for the understanding of the laws of nature”, he wrote in his essay about “Fundamental Principles of Arctic Research”. His ideas led to the first International Polar Year, hosted in 1882/1883, which was followed by two further substantial scientific events at the poles in 1932-1933 and 1957-1958. Currently, preparations for the Fourth International Polar Year, starting in March 2007, are under way.

Highly topical: Ice mass budgets
Carl Weyprecht, born on September 8, 1838 in Darmstadt, was naval officer, Arctic researcher and geophysicist for the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. In December 1871, Weyprecht presented a budget of ice cover in the Arctic Basin to the Imperial Academy of Sciences in Vienna. Deliberations on the sources and sinks as reasons for seasonal fluctuations comprise the main subject matter of his concepts. Since he assumed a negligible rate of sea ice formation during the six months of the summer, and considered the drain of ice masses to be continual, he came to the conclusion that a navigable central arctic basin would have to exist during the autumn, unless the ice was supported by underlying land masses in that same region. As a consequence of his hypothesis, Weyprecht proposed ocean expeditions to visit the central Arctic, and to follow the Siberian coast.

Searching for the Northeast Passage
A first expedition to the Barents Sea in 1871, Weyprecht carried out jointly with Julius Payer. The Austro-Hungarian North Pole expedition with the purpose of exploring the Northeast Passage left Bremerhaven in 1872 under the leadership of Carl Weyprecht and Julius Payer on the ice-going ‘Admiral Tegetthoff’. Although the archipelago of Franz Josef Land was discovered during this expedition, not one of the targeted geographic destinations was reached. After two winters in the ice, the ship had to be abandoned. Under Weyprecht’s leadership, the return across the ice by means of sleds and boats was successful. Because of north-drifting ice, it took 90 days for the crew members to reach the ice edge. Subsequently, the journey continued in the four boats that had been brought along.

Fundamental principles of Arctic research
Since December 1974, the Bremen ‘Polarverein’ (Polar Society), had sought the empire’s support for a new East Greenland expedition, intended to coincide with a British expedition to the west coast of Greenland. A major component of the application consisted of the simultaneous data collection across a large spatial scale for meteorology, geomagnetics and Northern Lights research, consistent with Weyprecht’s conclusions from his unsuccessful expedition. From 1875 onwards, Weyprecht became an avid advocate for circumpolar research stations, which would replace the classic polar expeditions. In his essay ‘Fundamental Principles of Arctic Research’ he promotes the systematic exploration of polar regions through international collaboration. His views focus on the major significance of the polar regions for scientific research, and his article draws attention to the need for coordinated serial observations.

The path to the International Polar Year
In 1879, during the second international Meteorological Conference in Rome, Weyprecht’s efforts were met with major approval for the first time, and on October 5 of the same year, the International Polar Commission was founded at the German Hydrographical Office in Hamburg. Georg von Neymayer, Director of the German Hydrographical Office at the time, became chair of the commission. Within only three years, he paved the way for the First International Polar Year. Neumayer successfully promoted integration of the Antarctic into the programme. One year after Weyprecht’s death on March 29, 1881 in Michelstadt, the First International Polar Year took place with participation of twelve nations. The largest scientific project of its time included 15 coordinated expeditions to the Arctic and Antarctic.

During the second polar year 50 years later, the number of participating nations rose from 12 to 67. The International Geophysical Year in 1957-1958, the third large-scale scientific event in the polar regions, brought together approximately 80,000 scientists from many nations across the globe. One of its results was the Antarctic Treaty from 1959, joined by the Federal Republic of Germany in 1979.

Since 1967, the German Society of Polar Research has been awarding the Carl-Weyprecht Medal to deserving researchers.

Bremerhaven, March 27, 2006

Contact: Dr. Reinhard A. Krause (Tel.: 471 4831-1924, E-Mail:


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The Institute

The Alfred Wegener Institute pursues research in the polar regions and the oceans of mid and high latitudes. As one of the 18 centres of the Helmholtz Association it coordinates polar research in Germany and provides ships like the research icebreaker Polarstern and stations for the international scientific community.