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National Historic Sites in the Mountain National Parks

Sulphur Mountain Cosmic Ray Station National Historic Site of Canada

Map of the National Historic Sites in the vicinity of the Mountain National Parks
Interactive Map of the National Historic Sites in the vicinity of the Mountain National Parks
© Parks Canada

Sulphur Mountain Cosmic Ray Station Site Sulphur Mountain Cosmic Ray Station National Historic Site
© Parks Canada


Sulphur Mountain Cosmic Ray Station is recognized as a national historic site commemorating the remains of a high altitude geophysical laboratory, which facilitated Canada’s contribution to the International Geophysical Year of 1957-58.

View from Sulphur Mountain Weather Observatory, looking at the former site of the Cosmic Ray Station.
View from Sulphur Mountain Weather Observatory, looking at the former site of the Cosmic Ray Station.
© Parks Canada

A Gathering of the Minds

International Geophysical Year (IGY) was an international endeavour in geophysical research developed out of a long history of scientific interest in the terrestrial and atmospheric properties of the polar regions.

International Polar Years

In 1882-83, eleven countries participated in a comprehensive study of the geophysics of the polar regions in an exercise called International Polar Year (IPY). Its success inspired Second International Polar Year (IPY-2), held in 1932-33, which Canada participated in. IPY-2 was so successful, scientists began talking about repeating the venture, not in 50, but in 25 years. The International Council of Scientific Unions endorsed this suggestion and pushed to expand research fields beyond the polar regions.

International Geophysical Year

The drive to expand international collaboration in scientific realms led to the International Geophysical Year, an18 month period from July 1957 to December 1958. Over 30,000 scientists and observers from 70 countries participated. Midway through the program it was decided to continue another program into 1959, termed International Geophysical Co-operation (IGC-59). This 12-month extension is now considered a part of IGY. While IGY accumulated data in areas studied during first and second international polar years, it opened up new areas of geophysical research, namely the ocean and upper atmosphere.

Sulphur Mountain Cosmic Ray Station

Canada participated in IGY with nine sites established to measure cosmic rays. Sulphur Mountain Cosmic Ray Station was the most important site due to its high elevation. The site, built by the National Research Council in the winter of 1956-57 in preparation for the IGY, stands at an elevation of 2283m (7490 ft).

Cosmic Rays

The discovery that cosmic rays are particles of matter, not pure energy, stimulated the growth of particle physics as a study discipline. The study of cosmic rays has taught us about the heliosphere, as well as the sun’s affect on the earth's environment. Observing the rays travel allows us to glimpse the properties of the layers of atmosphere through which it has traveled.

The boardwalk leading to the Cosmic Ray Station National Historic Site of Canada features interpretive panels and stunning views of the Bow Valley. The boardwalk leading to the Cosmic Ray Station National Historic Site of Canada features interpretive panels and stunning views of the Bow Valley.
© Parks Canada

Then and Now

When first constructed, the site consisted of a laboratory approximately 50 square metres in size. The lab was built so that it would not be visible from the Banff townsite or the Banff Springs Hotel, a condition of its construction. The centre was expanded in 1961, after the National Research Council handed the laboratory over to the University of Calgary. Operational until 1978, the building was removed in 1981, leaving only the lab’s foundation.

Records of the site’s function and findings during the IGY are kept at the University of Calgary, one of the country’s premiercentres for the study of particle physics.

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Sulphur Mountain Cosmic Ray Station House National Historic Site of Canada plaque states:
Located at the top of Sulphur Mountain, the cosmic ray station was completed by the National Research Council in 1956, in preparation for the International Geophysical Year (1957-1958) an undertaking involving 66 countries and a do--en scientific disciplines. The study of cosmic rays held a prominent place, with 99 cosmic ray stations (nine in Canada) in operation world-wide during IGY. Due to its high elevation Sulphur Mountain was the most important Canadian station. In 1960 the University of Alberta at Calgary took over the station, which was closed in 1978. The building itself was dismantled in 1981.

Fast Fact:

The Cosmic Ray Station was not the first scientific facility to be built on Sulphur Mountain. In 1903, a meteorological observatory building was completed on nearby Sanson Peak, named in 1948 in honour of Norman Bethune Sanson, the observer who tended the recording equipment for nearly 30 years.

Sulphur Mountain Weather Observatory Sulphur Mountain Weather Observatory
© Parks Canada

Fast Fact:

The Fantastic Four, characters from a Marvel comic book series, received their super powers after being exposed to Cosmic Rays during a scientific mission to outer space.

Sources:

“International Geophysical Year,” The National Academy of Sciences, www.nas.edu

“Sulphur Mountain Cosmic Ray Station National Historic Site of Canada Commemorative Integrity Statement,” Parks Canada, 1999