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| A Polar Get-Together - Leading polar scientists came together in March for an EU symposium.The European Commission celebrated the launch of the International Polar Year link 1 (IPY) with a symposium on the Polar Environment and Climate in early March 2007, organised by DG Research. The symposium link 2 brought together around 160 participants from 21 countries. The Commission was able to highlight its contributions to polar research, while the event proved a useful forum for exchanging ideas between leading specialists in the field.
“Climate change has been caused by us human beings. It is up to us to sort it out”. With those words, EU Commissioner Janez Potočnik set the tone for the symposium from the start – climate change, its effects on the polar regions and the impact on global climate patterns.
Climate change is also a key issue for the IPY, organised by the International Council for Science link 3 (ICSU) and the World Meteorological Office link 4 (WMO), is running over a two-year period from March 2007 to March 2009. Thousands of scientists from over 60 countries are involved in more than 200 research projects. The IPY offers opportunities for enhanced collaboration in regions that remain under-explored and to raise awareness amongst the broader public. As Dr. Dave Carlson, IPY programme director said, the event is “a chance to bring science back to the public”.
POLE TO POLE
The Polar Regions are suffering disproportionately from global warming. The effects on local communities and wildlife in the Arctic could be devastating and are also likely to be felt globally. For example, ice melting could disrupt the thermohaline circulation (the global circulation of sea water that links the world’s oceans together), with effects that remain to be discovered. Indeed the Commission is calling for a large research project on thermohaline circulation stability as part of the recently launched Seventh Framework Programme.
Polar research faces three basic challenges. The first is cost – expenses incurred in doing fieldwork can be prohibitive. The second is its inter-disciplinary nature: polar research brings together scientists from many fields. A more holistic approach offers strong potential in new discoveries. The third challenge is the information itself. Despite decades of polar research, there are still large gaps in our understanding of the Polar Regions. Big collaborative fieldwork as embodied by IPY should go some way to addressing this.
The first day’s sessions looked at climate systems – the historical record of past climate change, present observations, and future polar climate change modelling. A recurring theme was the lack of data. Polar research has a long and illustrious history behind it (stretching back to the 1830s) but the regions’ remoteness and size makes getting comprehensive information a big challenge. In addition, the very subject of climate change incorporates a number of variables that are not easily brought together. The Arctic was the main focus of attention, with the threat of summer Arctic sea-ice disappearing altogether in the near future a main cause for concern.
Past climate data is based on both historical records, and from techniques like ice core drilling. In the latter case, ice samples are taken from great depths, and air bubbles trapped within the snow and ice can be analysed to show how the past climate was (the level of atmospheric carbon dioxide, for example). Such samples are useful to look at natural climate variability which plays an important role. Sudden shorter-term climate events like the Pacific El Niño Southern Oscillation need to be differentiated from longer-term climate trends.
Research in the Polar Regions and climate change also bring together a number of different scientific disciplines – from biologists studying plankton to scientists tracking ozone depletion in the atmosphere. Creating common terminology and finding data that can be mutually exploitable are fascinating challenges.
The quality and quantity of data are essential for climate prediction models. Increased confidence has been expressed in these, but additional data sources are still needed. For example, little data exists on polar cloud formations and their climatic impact. Modelling climate change is very complex, and the larger the scale the more the variability. A core European contribution to the IPY is the DAMOCLES link 5 integrated project, a consortium of 48 institutions from 11 EU countries, Russia and Belarus, which aims to create an improved monitoring and forecasting system for the Arctic climate. Participants at the symposium were able to view a special exhibition on the DAMOCLES project, explaining the research and with background information on Arctic climate change.
The second day was devoted to cross-cutting issues. Two sessions looked at the human and biological side of polar research – health and the natural and socio-economic impacts of climate change. The Arctic is inhabited by around 4 million people. It is also home to a surprisingly large biodiversity: thousands of species, many still unrecorded and many facing extinction. The health session focused on disease and pollution threats, and the benefits of integrated methods were illustrated, for example those exploring the dynamics between climate change and the appearance of new diseases and parasites. The session on natural and socio-economic impacts stressed that long-term (100-year timespan) data was very limited, lamenting that most data had only been collected over recent years, after rapid climate change had been set in motion.
Further cross-cutting subjects highlighted the importance of adequate research infrastructure. Polar research is an expensive venture, entailing high logistics and capital. The need to create sustainable observation networks was stressed, as well as the advantages of pooling resources and research data. Participants pointed out that IPY offers the potential for unparalleled sharing of infrastructure and funding. The possibility of creating a virtual network for researchers was one suggestion aired. The EU’s own major infrastructure contribution will be to support a new dedicated research icebreaker called Aurora Borealis, able to operate around the year and equipped with a drilling capacity in excess of 4000m depth.
The last panel discussion focused on public outreach and education. The need to make science accessible to the public is a subject exercising minds across the scientific community, and the IPY is a great opportunity to highlight polar research – new discoveries and impressive research efforts should create headlines. The link with climate change, a core preoccupation, is also a way of showing the relevance of the Polar Regions to the rest of the world. A film trailer was shown about polar research and other initiatives link 6 were highlighted, with participants responding warmly.
The need to encourage young researchers was also stressed, through the creation and support of associations like, the Association of Early Career Polar Scientists link 7 (APECS). Like other scientific disciplines, polar research runs the risk of finding too few young scientists to ensure a new generation of research. Young researchers at the symposium also raised concerns about academic support as older generations of polar scientists retire. Certainly, with the depth and breadth of polar research increasing, as new scientific techniques are perfected, as collaborative fieldwork gathers pace, and as public awareness increases about the importance of these regions, it will be up to these young researchers to build up knowledge of these cold, distant, and beautiful regions.
Polar Environment and Climate: The challenges link 9 [2.3 Mb].