To the ends of the Earth
The polar regions – the Arctic in the north and Antarctica in the south – are experiencing unprecedented environmental changes that will have big impacts on people, weather and ecosystems worldwide. For scientists, these regions are their most important sources of information for investigating climate change.
International Polar Year 2007-2008 is a major scientific programme bringing together hundreds of research teams from around the world to find out more about the changes taking place in the ice, oceans, animals and plants of the coldest regions on Earth.
The special characteristics of the polar regions mean they have a big impact on our planet’s climate. The poles act as the Earth’s two ‘cold sources’, absorbing heat and influencing ocean currents, wind and rain patterns. The polar ice caps also contain around three-quarters of the world's freshwater supplies. As they start melting because of global warming, they are releasing extra water into the world’s oceans.
The polar regions are warming up to twice as fast as the rest of the world. This is most dramatic at the Arctic, where average temperatures have risen by more than 2°C in some areas since the 1950s. This means that sea ice is melting especially quickly. According to NASA (the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration), an area of permanent sea ice the size of the US state of Texas has been lost in just one year. Projections show that the Arctic may be clear of sea ice in summer by the latter part of this century, with some suggesting this could happen by as early as 2040.
“Satellite observations show that ice loss continues and September 2007 has reached an all-time record minimum ice extent,” said Don Perovich, a scientist from one of over 30 International Polar Year projects measuring sea ice. “Scientists working with field measurements, satellite data, autonomous observing systems, and models are working together to understand the causes of the changes in the ice cover.”
The French ship Tara is making a two-year expedition across the Arctic Ocean to observe sea ice as part of the EU-sponsored DAMOCLES project. With over 45 research institutions from ten European Union countries, Norway, Russia and Belarus taking part, DAMOCLES is the largest-ever effort to collect simultaneous observations of the Arctic's atmosphere, ice and ocean system. The work is being coordinated with teams from the USA, Canada and Japan.
Clues from the past
Antarctica is a unique continent because temperatures there never rise above freezing point. Its ice can be up to 3.5 kilometres thick and over one million years old. The ice holds valuable information about the Earth's past climate that can help improve our understanding of the climate change under way today and its likely impacts. By taking samples of the ancient ice and analysing the bubbles of air trapped in it, scientists can see the relationship between past levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) – the main greenhouse gas responsible for man-made climate change – and changes in temperature over the centuries.
One of the most dramatic recent indicators of climate change was the sudden collapse of a 3 000 km2 section of the Antarctic ice pack in 2002. This worrying development has, however, given scientists a chance to research a marine area that had been covered up for more than 12 000 years. They have, in effect, a “year zero” from which to measure future climate change effects.
The German ship Polarstern set off at the end of last year to explore this area, in the first of a dozen expeditions that will collect data for a comprehensive survey of marine life in the region. The so-called Census of Antarctic Marine Life (CAML) is the largest biological research programme during International Polar Year.
Activities during the Polar Year are not restricted to scientific research. There are also expeditions, education projects and art exhibitions to make everyone more aware of the changes that are going on at both ends of the Earth.
The ‘Arctic Voices’ project links schools in the Arctic regions of Greenland and Canada with schools in Britain – through video-conferencing, e-communication and other events. Explorer Glen Morris launched the project in June by starting a 2 000-mile voyage across the icy Arctic seas by kayak. He is visiting some of the schools taking part in the exchange and recording interviews on how climate change is affecting the Inuit people.
“The Arctic is the world’s early-warning system. Time is running out for the Inuit whose entire way of life could disappear in just a few years if nothing is done to stop climate change,” said Morris. “They have traditionally supported themselves through hunting but now they are experiencing dramatic changes to their environment as a direct result of the actions of the industrialised world.”
For more information about International Polar Year, see: www.ipy.org
Watch our videos about the Polar regions: