For most of us, the North and South Poles are evocative of another world. But the riches hidden under their thick ice are simply too abundant to cram into the meager pages of this special issue! Some of these are scientific riches, the fruit of major research projects which have revealed a universe of astounding contrasts. Both distant and near, neglected yet essential, the polar regions include both desert and populated habitats. Although they may appear immutable, these highly dynamic environments play a fundamental role in the health and metabolism of our planet. For example, Antarctica - a continent three times the size of Europe - accounts for 90% of the world's ice, a formidable climatic buffer which protects us from excessively rapid warming.
A voyage to the polar regions of the world is also a trip through time and history. With respect to the past, they constitute an archive of world climatic variations; polar ice makes it possible for scientists to write the history of recent climate changes and to validate the simulation models they are now developing. As for the present, these regions are already seeing major change, due to the effects of global warming. And we should not hesitate to follow the path of time forwards, as these regions hold the key to our future climate and thus the future of humanity. The disappearance of summer pack ice in the Arctic between now and the end of this century (a sadly probable and even realistic scenario) is just one of the symptoms of the major changes which are already profoundly affecting the outline and life of our planet.
In this high-altitude overview, RTD info has tried to consider a broad range of scientific disciplines: glaciology, climatology, astronomy, geomorphology, etc., while not forgetting the life sciences. Although working in the extreme environment of the polar regions raises problems because of the ‘inhuman’ conditions, we can learn from the survival skills of native populations such as the Inuits and Saami in the Arctic, not forgetting that they too have to learn to accommodate the "innovations" imposed upon them by warming, such as the appearance of swarms of wasps.
Last but not least, European participation in polar research is highly developed and has left its mark on all of the major stages of exploration. This exemplary cooperation is reflected by this special issue which was prepared at the initiative of and in conjunction with the International Polar Foundation.