LONDON : More than 50,000 scientists from 63 nations turned their attention to the world’s poles to measure the effects of climate change, using icebreakers, satellites and submarines to study everything from the effect of solar radiation on the polar atmosphere to the exotic marine life swimming beneath the Antarctic ice.
The International Polar Year,2007-2008 unifies 228 research projects under a single umbrella with the aim of monitoring the health of the Earth’s polar regions and gauging the impact of global warming. The largest international research programme in 50 years, the project officially begins March 1 and ends in 2009, to allow each pole to run through a full summer and winter.
“Global warming is the most challenging problem that our civilization has faced,” Britain’s chief scientific advisor, Sir David King, said in a video played before the event’s launch. He called the melting of polar ice “the canary in the coal mine for global warming.”
The year is being sponsored by the UN’s World Meteorological Organization and the International Council for Science. About US$1.5 billion (euro1.1 billion) has been earmarked for the year’s projects by various national exploration agencies, but most of the money comes from pre-existing polar research budgets.
While the increase in resources available to explorers is modest, British scientists said that the project had the potential to yield a complete picture of the threat facing the polar world—known to scientists as the cryosphere.“What’s different this year is not so much the volume of research funding, but more the coordination of research,” said Eric Wolff, a British Antarctic survey scientist.
Besides yielding a more complete picture of the impact of global warming, the cooperation will help tackle polar science’s most vexing problems, such as the challenge of trying to quantify the amount of fresh water leaking out from underneath ice sheets in Antarctica. The melting _ which is distinct from the break up of glaciers _ has alarmed climate scientists because it takes place beneath the ice and is difficult to measure.
Wolff said that estimates of the leakage taken from ships off the coast of the continent offered an incomplete picture of the problem because currents could draw the melt to other areas.
“It’s only by getting all the ships that you have available to do the same thing at the same time that you get a snapshot of the whole Antarctic,” Wolff said.Other projects include the installation of an Arctic Ocean monitoring system, described as an early warning system for climate change, and a census of the deep-sea creatures which populate the bottom of Antarctica’s Southern Ocean.
Few aspects of the cryosphere will escape scrutiny. The Antarctic’s lakes and mountains— some which have been trapped under about five kilometers (three miles) of ice for more than 35 million years— will be sounded. Using telescopes, balloons, and spacecraft, scientists at the poles will investigate plasma and magnetic fields kicked up by the sun — the dry, clear polar air is ideal for astronomy. Anthropologists are also planning to study the culture and politics of some the Arctic’s 4 million inhabitants.
Although each project has its own scope, almost all touch in some way on the fear that the environment they were studying might someday melt away. At the year’s launch, it was clear what scientists expected to find amid the ice and snow.
“We are now on an unsustainable path,” said Corinne Le Quere, a professor at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England. “By seeing the changes as they occur in the region where they will be occurring the fastest, the International Polar Year will provide blinding evidence of the human impact on this planet.”