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RTD info logoMagazine on European Research Special issue - May 2005   
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Title  What's so crucial about polar research?

Although almost opposites in terms of geography and topography, the common characteristics of the Arctic and the Antarctic are of course their coldness, remoteness and the harshness of their environments. This means that polar researchers must often rely on specially adapted methods and technologies to carry out their work, making polar science a complex and extremely expensive activity. But why all this effort, and why would something happening so far away from our daily lives be so crucial?

Sea ice (here in the Arctic) occupies about 7% of the surface area of the world’s oceans, and is important climatically because of the large percentage of light it reflects (albedo) compared to the average for the Earth's surface.
Sea ice (here in the Arctic) occupies about 7% of the surface area of the world’s oceans, and is important climatically because of the large percentage of light it reflects (albedo) compared to the average for the Earth's surface.
© IPF
The climatic buffer provided by the polar regions, however, also depends on the horizontal extent of sea ice. Until quite recently, the combined sea ice cover of the Arctic and Southern Oceans had never dropped below 16 million km2. These large white surfaces reflect solar radiation back out into space and thus contribute significantly to the natural cooling of our planet. This reflective capacity is known as the albedo.

A Carbon sink
Additionally, what is referred to as the thermohaline circulation (heat and salt transit) is driven by the polar oceans. North Atlantic Deep Water (NADW) formation drives the cold current that flows out from the Arctic Ocean through the Fram straight into the Atlantic. Similarly, cold water from the Weddell Sea flows into the Southern Ocean. These bottom currents have a direct impact on the carbon cycle and make the Southern Ocean the Earth’s principle oceanic carbon sink by providing the conditions for the growth of CO2 absorbing phytoplankton.

A privileged and irreplaceable research zone
This upside-down piece of Antarctic sea-ice shows the mixture of microscopic ice-algae responsible for the bulk of the Southern Ocean’s ability to absorb CO2 through photosynthesis.
This upside-down piece of Antarctic sea-ice shows the mixture of microscopic ice-algae responsible for the bulk of the Southern Ocean’s ability to absorb CO2 through photosynthesis.
© IPF
Apart from the research being carried out on these urgent issues, the polar regions attract scientific investigations into a whole range of disciplines. Glaciology is probably the most talked about in the climate change context, particularly due to the mass of information already produced about past climates.

Indeed the poles themselves have also proven to be key regions for research and observation. For example:

  • Studying the interactions between the high atmosphere and ionized particles coming from the sun, which cause both the Aurora Borealis and the Aurora Australis. These interactions also affect radio emissions from satellites;
  • Using Antarctica as an observatory for the upper atmospheric layers, including the study of stratospheric ozone and the seasonal polar "ozone holes";
  • Taking advantage of the clarity and purity of the air on top of the Greenland and Antarctic icecaps for astrophysical work;
  • Using the Antarctic ice sheet as a natural substrate in which to study cosmic phenomena and sub-particles such as neutrinos (see IceCube: Antarctica’s crystal ball);
  • Studying the unspoiled terrestrial ecosystems found in Antarctica and in some regions of the Arctic, and monitoring the invasion of simple communities by alien species;
  • Describing and untangling undisturbed and complex sea floor communities, constituting a huge marine biodiversity;
  • Using the quasi-lunar environment of the polar regions as experimental grounds for rovers and other space technologies;
  • Studying indigenous flora and fauna and their response to environmental change, past and present human exploitation, and tourism;
  • Studying bird migration;
  • Collecting meteorites from the surface of ice caps and other ice formations where only rocks of extraterrestrial origin can be found.
  • Studying the psycho-biology and psycho-sociology of wintering scientists as a model of isolated human communities.


But probably the most challenging issue for scientists is the probable fate of polar ice given the threat of global warming: according to the warning given by the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment Report, warming leading to loss of sea ice and melting of the ice caps will have a huge global effect. No one knows the exact threshold beyond which the melting of sea ice and ice caps will become impossible to reverse. But each of us, whether polar scientists or not, probably understands that it is not just a question of a planet devoid of its polar bears or emperor penguins, as icons of a pristine icy world, but the consequent rise in sea levels which will rob millions of their homes, if not their lives.

An international effort
Due to the high cost of logistics and support activities, polar research often relies on international collaboration, especially for larger projects. International cooperation came to the fore after the last International Geophysical Year in 1957, and has, underpinned by the Antarctic Treaty provisions, played a decisive role in shaping polar research and in maintaining the necessary network of research vessels and stations.

    
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