World's largest research effort finishes
25 February 2009
The world's largest internationally coordinated research effort, International Polar Year (IPY), drew to a close today with the launch of a report The State of Polar Research at an event in Geneva, Switzerland.
Scientists retrieving ice core samples.
More than 60,000 scientists and support staff from 60 nations were involved in the two-year programme that attracted funding estimated at around $1.2 billion.
IPY's international programme office was funded by the Natural Environment Research Council and based at the British Antarctic Survey's headquarters in the UK.
'International Polar Year came at a crossroads for the planet's future,' said Michel Jarraud, Secretary General of the World Meteorological Organization that, along with the International Council for Science, sponsored IPY.
'The new evidence resulting from polar research will strengthen the scientific basis on which we build future actions,' he added.
The State of Polar Research report states, 'IPY took place during a time when our planet was changing faster than ever in recorded history, especially in the polar regions...The need for polar research has never been greater.'
Flouting convention, IPY began in in March 2007, spanned 2008, and finishes today. This allowed scientists two full research seasons at both poles. The programme, 50 years after the last such major initiative - International Geophysical Year - was timely: during the research period scientists witnessed Arctic sea ice reach record lows.
The summer minimum extent of Arctic sea ice decreased by roughly one million square kilometres to its smallest area since satellite records began. Researchers also noted that the North Pole region was covered in relatively thin ice in mid-winter for the first time in the observational record.
'IPY expeditions recorded an unprecedented rate of ice drift across the Arctic basin, providing compelling evidence of changes in the Arctic ice-ocean-atmosphere system,' according to the report.
The media have been quick to blame the changing climate for the extreme events. But researchers say it is still too early to tell if the changes are a sign of a major shift in the climate of the region or merely natural variability. This has now become an intense area of enquiry, but thanks to IPY, scientists have more data available to them.
Stability of Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets
During the period, scientists made new assessments of the state of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets that use satellite measurements of changes to the elevation and the gravitational fields of the ice sheets and estimates of the difference between snowfall and ice discharge.
The report says, 'It now appears certain that both the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets are losing mass and thus raising sea level and that the rate of ice loss from Greenland is growing.'
IPY research vessels confirmed 'above-global-average' warming in the Southern Ocean. 'A freshening of the bottom water near Antarctica is consistent with increased ice melt from Antarctica and could affect ocean circulation. Global warming is thus affecting Antarctica in ways not previously identified,' says the report.
In the Arctic, IPY research has identified large pools of carbon stored as methane in permafrost. Thawing permafrost threatens to release stored methane - a greenhouse gas 20 times more effective than carbon dioxide - into the atmosphere. Indeed, IPY researchers including NERC scientists observed substantial emissions of methane from ocean sediments along the Siberian coast.
Poles rich in variety of life
Biodiversity surveys of the Southern Ocean have uncovered a remarkably rich, colourful and complex range of life. Some species appear to be migrating poleward in response to global warming. Other IPY studies reveal interesting evolutionary trends like the news that many present-day deep-sea octopuses originated from a common ancestor still living in the Southern Ocean as reported in Planet Earth in November 2008.
IPY has given atmospheric research a boost. IPY endorsed researchers discovered that North Atlantic storms are major sources of heat and moisture for the polar regions. Understanding these mechanisms will improve forecasts of the path and intensity of storms. And new connections have been found between the ozone concentrations above Antarctica and wind and storm conditions over the Southern Ocean. This information will improve predictions of climate and ozone depletion.
Enthusing young people
Finally, the scale of the education and outreach work for IPY has been remarkable. Many Arctic residents, including indigenous communities, participated in IPY projects. Over 30 of these projects addressed Arctic social and human science issues, including food security, pollution, and other health issues, and will bring new understanding to addressing these pressing challenges.
'IPY has been the catalyst for the development and strengthening of community monitoring networks,' said Dr David Carlson, director of the IPY international programme office. 'These networks stimulate the information flow among communities and back and forth from science to communities.'
While IPY has already achieved so much, Carlson is keen to point out that the work continues and, like its predecessor, International Geophysical Year, the full legacy of the initiative may take some years to realise.
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