Scientists Embark on International Polar Year 2007-2008

WASHINGTON, DC, February 26, 2007 (ENS) - Polar scientists, the heads of U.S. government agencies, and politicians with an interest in Arctic and Antarctic research today took part in the opening ceremony for the International Polar Year 2007-2008 at the National Academies of Science in Washington. And at the South Pole, a giant U.S. telescope first light.


An iceberg in Gerlache Strait separating the Palmer Archipelago from the Antarctic Peninsula. (Photo by Rear Admiral Harley Nygren courtesy NOAA)
The International Polar Year, IPY, focused on advancing human understanding of how the Earth's polar regions impact global climate systems, is the largest internationally coordinated scientific research effort in 50 years.

"Our planet is changing more quickly than at any time in recorded history," said U.S. National Science Foundation Director Arden Bement.

"Frigid waters of the north and the frozen continent of the south are helping us realize and understand that change. We do not fully understand the causes of what we are observing. IPY has generated the national will to change that, and new tools – from satellites to ships to sensors – make it possible to obtain the needed observations and synthesis of knowledge."


Nuclear engineer Arden Bement has headed the National Science Foundation since 2004. (Photo courtesy Purdue)
The Washington ceremony was held in advance of the official international IPY launch, set for Thursday at the Palais de la Découverte, a famous science museum in central Paris.

Involving thousands of scientists from over 60 countries, IPY is a program of the International Council for Science and the World Meteorological Organization.

From March 1, 2007 to March 9, 2009, scientists will conduct more than 200 physical, biological and social sciences research studies in the Arctic and Antarctic.

While it is known as the International Polar Year, the research effort will span two full annual cycles in order to ensure full and equal coverage of both the Arctic and the Antarctic.

To kick off the U.S. IPY effort, scientists at the South Pole February 16 aimed an enormous new telescope at Jupiter and with great excitement collected the instrument's first test observations - known as the telescope's first light.

"The telescope, camera and optics are all working as designed," said John Carlstrom, the astronomer heading the team that tested the South Pole telescope, SPT, after four months of work to reassemble and deploy the giant instrument.


The South Pole Telescope is funded through the National Science Foundation Office of Polar Programs. (Photo courtesy U. Chicago)
"SPT's first light is a major milestone for the project and a fitting conclusion to a remarkably productive summer at the South Pole station. We now look forward to fully characterizing the instrument and beginning cosmological observations," said Carlstrom, the S. Chandrasekhar distinguished service professor in astronomy and astrophysics at the University of Chicago.

The telescope stands 75 feet (22.8 meters) tall, measures 33 feet (10 meters) across and weighs 280 tons (254 metric tons). It was assembled in Kilgore, Texas, then taken apart, shipped across the Pacific Ocean to New Zealand, and flown from there to the South Pole.

A team of researchers from nine institutions will use the scope to unravel the fundamental mysteries of modern cosmology and the nature of the universe.

"We would like to know what makes the universe evolve," said Stephan Meyer, professor in astronomy and astrophysics at the University of Chicago.

The South Pole telescope comes under one of six major themes of research for the International Polar Year - vantage point.

The six themes are:

Secretary-General of the World Meteorological Organization Michel Jarraud said, "IPY comes at a crossroads for the planet’s future. February’s first phase of the Fourth Assessment Report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has shown that these regions are highly vulnerable to rising temperatures."

"However," said Jarraud, "meteorological and other regular environmental in-situ observation facilities at the poles are few and it is essential to install more and increase satellite coverage to gain a better overall picture of how rapidly these areas are changing, and of the global impact of these changes."

The European Parliament and the European Polar Board today held a day-long event in Strasbourg focusing on polar research and its relevance for European citizens.

Europe is making a major contribution to IPY 2007-2008. More than two dozen European nations are taking part, investing at total of €200 million in IPY science, education and outreach projects.

A speaker in Strasbourg, Dr. David Carlson, director of the IPY International Programme Office, said, "We face many challenges as we start - funding, data sharing, and, most importantly, the surprising and rapidly changing nature of the polar regions."

"But we have an enormous strength - international enthusiasm and cooperation, at a higher level and across a wider range of science than most of us will see at any other time in our careers. IPY will succeed because of this scientific urgency and energy," said Carlson.

North Pole

At the North Pole, the Sun is low in the sky as the Fall Equinox approaches. August 30, 2002 (North Pole webcam image courtesy NOAA)
Previous International Polar Years of 1882-83, 1932-33, and 1957-58, which was also known as the International Geophysical Year, each produced major increases in human understanding of the Earth system.

IPY 2007-2008 will initiate a new era in polar science with a stronger emphasis on interdisciplinary research including physical, ecological and social sciences, and strong partnerships with indigenous communities and educators.

The IPY leaders aim to educate and involve the public while helping to train the next generation of engineers, scientists and leaders.

Professor Thomas Rosswall, executive director of the International Council for Science, explains, "In comparison with previous Polar Years, we have planned a broader program involving all the relevant disciplines from both natural and social sciences. The IPY is an excellent example of strengthening international science for the benefit of society – the mission of ICSU."

U.S. agencies engaged in IPY scientific research and outreach include the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Geological Survey, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NOAA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the Department of Energy, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the National Institutes of Health, NIH.

"NOAA has had footprints in the snow and ice at both poles for decades," said NOAA Administrator Conrad Lautenbacher. "Our people are in the Arctic and Antarctic 365 days a year. This year is the 50th anniversary of NOAA collecting observations at the South Pole."

"The Arctic Human Health Initiative is a U.S. led effort with the Arctic Council," said James Herrington, director of the Division of International Relations at the NIH Fogarty International Center.


Reindeer herding is the backbone of the indigenous Sami culture. Most Sami live in Norway's northernmost Finnmark county. (Photo by Ola Røe courtesy Green Arctic)
"It's a project that aims to increase the visibility and awareness of health concerns of Arctic peoples and to foster human health research and promote health-protection strategies that will improve the health and well-being of Arctic residents."

The Arctic Human Health Initiative will advance the joint research agenda of the Arctic Council, an eight-nation intergovernmental forum for sustainable development and environmental protection, in the areas of infectious disease, the effects of anthropogenic pollution, ultraviolet radiation, and climate variability on human health, and telehealth innovations.

Six hundred people packed a sports hall in the municipality of Kautokeino, Norway on February 14 for the opening of the Indigenous People's International Polar Year. The event attracted Norwegian, Russian and Sami dignitaries, scientists, educators and students.


At the opening of the Indigenous People's International Polar Year, from left: Mai Britt Utsi, rector, Sami University College; Klemet Erland Haetta, mayor of Kautokeino; Helen Bjøornoy, Norwegian environment minster; and Aili Keskitalo, president of the Sámi Parliament in Norway. (Photo by K. Ullstein courtesy IP-IPY)

The IPY Arctic Reindeer Herders’ Vulnerability Network Study, known as the EALAT Network study, will be among only eight to be featured at the IPY official opening in Paris on Thursday. The interdisciplinary, intercultural study will assess the vulnerability of reindeer herding to change in key aspects of the natural and human environments.

Throughout this week, 20 nations are celebrating the launch of the International Polar Year.

New Zealand, Indigenous People, Argentina, and the Ukraine have already held their launch events.

Today, the United Kingdom held its inaugural ceremony in London.

Professor Chris Rapley CBE, director of the British Antarctic Survey, is one of the architects of International Polar Year.


A physicist and radioastronomer, Professor Chris Rapley is director of the British Antarctic Survey. (Photo courtesy IGBP)
In a video message from Antarctica he told attendees at the ceremony in London, "The change of phase from snow and ice to water is the biggest tipping point in the Earth's system and so, although the International Polar Year covers a huge range of science, for me the big issue is climate change and the impact that it's having here."

"So, over the next two years, I'm looking forward to major progress on key issues, such as How are the ice sheets responding? and indeed the trillion dollar question from the point of view of sea-level rise, is How much, how quickly?"

The UK has been a leader in polar science and exploration for more than two centuries, and is playing a major role in the International Polar Year. Some 65 UK institutions including 40 universities, research council institutes, government departments, museums and science centers are taking part in some 120 IPY projects.

National celebrations in Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, Denmark, Greenland, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Italy, Japan, Norway, Poland, Portugal, South Africa, and Sweden will take place in the near future.

Not all the scientific effots are national, many are international in scope. The Permafrost Young Researchers Network, PYRN, hosted its kick-off meeting at the Abisko Scientific Research Station, Sweden on the weekend.


Polar permafrost at the mouth of Russia's Lena River (Photo courtesy EarthScan Lab, LSU)
PYRN is an international effort under the patronage of the International Permafrost Association to bring young permafrost researchers together during the International Polar Year and beyond. The first phase of the PYRN project saw more than 300 young researchers from 31 countries join the network, which is now the largest young researcher-driven network in the field of cryospheric science.

This scientific effort is also embracing the arts. The Polar Artists Group, in partnership with IPY, is developing an international network of artists who have a passion for the polar regions.

Their images will go into a searchable database for easy access by galleries, museums, media, and scientists who want visuals to support their research or exhibitions. Artists and scientists will work together for artist-in-residence opportunities, international exhibitions, conservation efforts, and an annual Passion for the Poles conference.

For more information, visit the International Polar Year 2007-2008:

For historical images visit: