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Polar Research Push Begins

International Polar Year will involve scientists from 63 countries

by Bette Hileman
March 5, 2007 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 85, Issue 10

Credit: Peter West/NSF (both)
Scientists retrieve a string of instruments through a hole drilled in the ice at the North Pole.
Credit: Peter West/NSF (both)
Scientists retrieve a string of instruments through a hole drilled in the ice at the North Pole.

More than 50,000 researchers from 63 countries have launched a far-reaching investigation of the role of Earth's polar regions in the global climate system. During the two-year, $350 million initiative called the International Polar Year (IPY), scientists will collaborate on about 200 expeditions to the Arctic and Antarctic.

Scientists involved with IPY, which has been organized through the International Council for Science and the World Meteorological Organization, will use satellites, submarines, airplanes, and ice breakers to answer important questions about global warming and to provide a baseline for understanding future environmental change.

Climate has changed faster in polar regions than in any other place on the planet, scientists say. By focusing on these regions, IPY researchers hope to gain a better understanding of the melting rates of ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica, reductions in permafrost in northern regions, the effects of diminishing sea ice on the climate system, and alterations in polar ocean currents. They will also be studying how climate change is affecting traditional ways of life at high latitudes as well as the populations of polar bears, penguins, marine mammals, and other sea life there.

The National Academies' Polar Research Board is overseeing the U.S. contribution to IPY. Altogether, 11 federal agencies, including NSF, NASA, the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration, and NIH, are involved in the program. The U.S. will spend about $50 million on the initiative.

An Adelie penguin at the Cape Royds colony in Antarctica.
An Adelie penguin at the Cape Royds colony in Antarctica.

"The polar regions are central to many of the key scientific questions of our times," says Robin E. Bell, chair of the Polar Research Board and a geophysicist at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, Columbia University. "IPY provides a framework to undertake projects that normally could not be achieved by any single nation."

Several unusual projects will be completed during the 2007-08 IPY. For example, scientists will use a range of new molecular techniques to study how Arctic fungi in tundra are changing with increasing temperatures.

"Another project seeks to coordinate the satellite resources of many nations to produce the best possible integrated look at the poles," says David Carlson, director of the IPY International Program Office. "We routinely rely on hundreds of satellites that look down on the planet," he explains. "We can adjust many of those satellite views: focus them on specific areas or take measurements of a specific type or resolution."

Still another unusual project will assess how changes in vegetation and hydrology and the invasion of diseases threaten to disrupt reindeer herder communities in the Eurasian Arctic, Carlson says.

At last week's announcement ceremony for IPY in Washington, D.C., Konrad Steffen, professor of geography at the University of Colorado, Boulder, pointed out that, from 2005 to 2006, the amount of ice lost from Greenland exceeded the total volume of all the Swiss glaciers. IPY will help scientists gain a better understanding of the responses of ice sheets to temperature change, he said, and to better predict sea-level rise in the 21st century. The average yearly ice loss from Greenland now is about 162 km3, a melt rate three times faster than it was five years ago, and sea level there is rising an average of 3.5 mm per year, he said.

IPY is modeled on three similar efforts that took place in 1882, 1937, and 1957. The 1957 initiative, called the International Geophysical Year, inspired many young people to choose science as a career.


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