Scientists seek cold, hard facts on polar changes

Major international effort to push multidisciplinary research at the North and South Poles as concern mounts over global warming. Images: A century of polar exploration

Stefanie Olsen Staff writer, CNET News
Stefanie Olsen covers technology and science.
Stefanie Olsen
3 min read
A two-year international research effort kicked off this week to study the polar regions and how they're tied in to global climate change, in the first such collaborative scientific project in more than 50 years.

Despite its name--International Polar Year (IPY) 2007-2008--the research project will run from February 2007 to March 2009, and it will call on scientists from 50 to 60 countries to study the Earth's north and south polar regions, or what's called the cryosphere. The stated goal is to investigate changes at the poles, enhance scientific collaboration and understanding of those regions, invest in new technologies and inspire a generation of young scientists through school curricula and public awareness.

"This planet's polar region, for most of us, conjures images of intrepid pioneers, of penguins...of inhospitable areas," Lynn Scarlett, deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior, said during the opening ceremony held this week in Washington, D.C.

"Yet the polar regions are remote only in their geographic distance from the planet's concentration of human population; they are not remote in their relevance. (They) are interconnected with the ebbs and flows of planetary changes critical to global climate, for example. Changes in polar condition affect biological, atmospheric and human systems around the world," Scarlett said.

A century of polar exploration

The IPY comes 126 years after the first-ever project began in 1881, which was eventually followed up by a second in 1932. The scientific collaboration also inspired the 1957 International Geophysical Year, which studied a broader scope of earth sciences and marked the launch of the Soviet Union's first successful artificial satellite, Sputnik 1.

Such international collaborations are designed to share the costs of technology, infrastructure and expertise needed to study the Earth as a whole. But the Polar Year also enables scientists to study otherwise desolate, remote and freezing parts of the world that are expensive to reach.

Part of the IPY mission is to engage the public in science, much the way Sputnik encouraged a generation of scientists and gave people a new picture of the Earth. U.S. scientists are particularly eager to craft school curricula around IPY because of fears that interest and aptitude in science is waning. Government funding for NASA's science research has also fallen off in recent years as the Bush administration has set priorities for sending people back to the moon and then onto Mars.

As part of a public awareness effort, the U.S. Postal Service in February issued its first-ever commemorative stamp for IPY--an 84-cent international-rate stamp that will have counterparts from eight countries, including Denmark, Finland, Greenland and Sweden. In 1958, the United States issued a 3-cent stamp to commemorate the International Geophysical Year.

IPY will also emphasize scientific research into human-natural systems at the poles; explore new scientific frontiers like plenary and molecular systems in those environments; and create multidisciplinary observing networks for ice, atmosphere and ocean.

In recent weeks, for example, scientists using NASA satellites reported finding an extensive network of lakes and waterways under an Antarctic ice stream that reveal how "leaks" in the system can affect sea level. These systems can sway sea level given that Antarctica holds about 90 percent of the globe's ice and 70 percent of its reservoir of fresh water. Scientists from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography discovered the waterways with data from NASA's highly sensitive satellites, which can capture 3D images of the waterways beneath the ice sheet and measure changes in its surface elevation.

Understanding how the ice sheet changes and affects sea level is one of the primary goals of the IPY.

"(My) hope as a result of this Polar Year is that we will have permanent observatories for ice, cryosphere, atmospheric and ocean that will last well beyond this year," said Conrad Lautenbacher, undersecretary for oceans and atmosphere at the U.S. Department of Commerce and administrator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.