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| The International Polar Year: of ice and menWe’ve come a long way since the first International Polar Year (IPY) of 1882-83. The frostbitten explorers who harpooned themselves a bite to eat have made way for well-prepared researchers in polyester fleece jackets. Polar temperatures are no longer as far below zero as those experienced by 19th century explorers. International Polar Years in the 1880’s, the 1930’s and the 1950’s have helped to assess the state of the Polar Regions over time and provide a snapshot of the Polar Region conditions at a particular point in history. In 2007-2008, the fourth International Polar Year will further increase our understanding of polar systems, and their impact on the global climate system.
IPY 2007-2008 link 1 spans the period from March 2007 to March 2009. This will enable researchers to investigate the frontiers of science, working in both Polar Regions during summer as well as winter. But the IPY is not just about ambitious scientific goals and achievements. Over the course of the year, education and outreach activities will teach children about global warming and raise awareness of the impacts of change. It will raise awareness of biodiversity and life in these extremely cold regions, where communities survive long dark winters. Science projects will help young people to reflect on the importance of the Polar Regions and more advanced programmes will encourage young researchers to consider career opportunities in polar science.
Joining frosty hands
Huge technological advances have allowed scientists across the globe to map the Polar change processes. Nowadays, satellites gather data to help scientists understand how climate change will affect the planet’s sea levels and ice cover. Modern technology has helped us to measure the temperature on the Earth’s surface, which has increased by 0.6°C over the last two centuries. In the Arctic, average temperatures have increased almost twice as fast as in the rest of the world and are projected to rise by a further 3 to 7°C between 2000 and 2100.
Observations have also shown that the area of Arctic sea ice cover has already decreased by about 10% over the past 30 years and could diminish by another 10-20%. Climate change researchers have found evidence of a global warming induced slowdown of the Gulf stream – the ocean current that keeps Europe from freezing. Such a slowdown is not only a warning that a much cooler climate for Europe could already be on its way; it also spells disaster for the Arctic. The ice cap could melt as early as 2020, leading to extinction of Arctic wildlife such as the polar bear.
Polar research is of such magnitude that it cannot be carried out by one single nation. It requires funds and expertise from a number of partnering countries. IPYs inject polar research with renewed vigour; they provide a framework for cooperation and pave the way for new groundbreaking research. Researchers from all over the globe will contribute, thus making this a truly international undertaking.
Researchers will obtain financial support for IPY 2007-2008 activities by making proposals to existing funding organisations, such as national mechanisms, and also regional and international funding bodies like the European Commission. Through its Framework Programme for Research, the EU is helping European researchers to join hands and pioneer innovative polar research.
An example of European research projects endorsed by IPY 2007-2008 is DAMOCLES link 2 (Developing Arctic Modeling and Observing Capabilities for Long-term Environmental Studies). This monitoring and forecasting system has been designed to observe, understand and quantify change in the Arctic. And there’s plenty of it. With ice shelves thinning, and glaciers shrinking, the Arctic sea cover will no longer reflect as much solar energy, modifying the Earth’s temperature. Shrinkage of the Greenland ice mass is causing sea levels to rise. If the temperature of the planet goes on rising, the entire Greenland ice sheet will melt, which will also bring about a 7.5 metre rise in the level of the oceans. Alaskan villages have moved to higher ground in response to rising sea levels, and thawing permafrost is causing northern roads and buildings to tilt into the ground. DAMOCLES looks at the reduced sea ice cover, and the impacts this might have on the environment and on human activities, both in the region and in the rest of the world. It integrates analysis of the atmosphere, of melting ice and rising sea levels to predict future outcomes.
EPICA-MIS link 3 builds on the results of EPICA (European Project for Ice coring in Antarctica) research projects, which aimed to obtain samples which go back as far as possible in the climatic history of our planet. Set up in 1995, EPICA achieved its ambitious aim in 2004 when it extracted samples of ice cores up to 900,000 years old. The ice cores are cylinders of ice 10 cm in diameter that are brought to the surface in lengths of about 3 metres at a time. Snowflakes collect particles from the atmosphere and these provide records of greenhouse gases reaching hundreds of thousands of years back in time. These samples prove that the atmospheric CO2 level is now higher than at any point in the last 650,000 years – the period for which contents have so far been reconstructed. At the Kohnen station, in the territories of Dronning Maud Land, EPICA-MIS is now comparing data from ice cores with data obtained from cores drilled in the sedimentary layers of the ocean floor. These ice core studies will produce integrated climate analyses and will record the levels of gases such as CO2 and methane as far back as 800,000 years.
IPY projects will also look at the impacts of oil and gas activity on Arctic communities. Faced with an increasing global demand for oil and gas, the Arctic has opened for business. Oil and gas development have come to dominate the industrial sector in the Arctic. But as Arctic communities are drawn into the global oil and gas market, their traditional livelihoods, health, food and environment have suffered.
The icing on the cake
A symposium link 4 organised by DG Research1 on 5-6 March 2007 brought together key polar scientists, policy-makers and the press to discuss past, present and future aspects of the climate and the environment in the polar regions. The event included sessions on human and wildlife health, natural and socio-economic impacts of climate change, research infrastructures, education and outreach, and climate change in all its diversity. A new catalogue of FP5 and FP6 project results link 5 showcases the work undertaken within the framework of EU research.