Studying the big picture: 50 years of international cooperation in Antarctic earth system science

As exemplified in the other articles in this issue of Australian Antarctic Magazine, much of present day Antarctic research is conducted within a spirit of collaboration, be it bilateral, multinational or truly international. This article provides a background to some of the larger international initiatives, many of them global rather than regional, that have helped determine the direction and progress of Antarctic science. The list of programs summarised here is by no means exhaustive, but hopefully provides some insight into the relevance and benefits of international cooperation. International cooperation allows researchers to share specialised expertise as well as resources, and to synthesise results to tackle large-scale regional and global issues involving the whole of Antarctica and the Southern Ocean. The total outcomes of these international efforts have always been greater than the sum of the components.

The modern era of intense scientific investigation of Antarctica through international collaboration grew from the highly successful International Geophysical Year (IGY) 1957–58. IGY was originally proposed as the 3rd International Polar Year (the first two International Polar Years in 1882–83 and 1932–33 involved predominantly Arctic activities) but developed to become a comprehensive global study of geophysical phenomena and their relationships with solar activity. It aimed to make wide-spread, simultaneous and intensive observations of a range of geophysical phenomena, using the latest instrumentation, rocket and satellite technologies. From the start, Antarctica was identified as an area of great scientific importance. The International Council of Scientific Unions (ICSU), the peak international non-governmental scientific body now called the International Council for Science, approved the concept of the IGY and established the Comite Spécial de l'Année Géophysique Internationale (CSAGI) to plan and coordinate activities. ICSU and UNESCO contributed funding to the central organisation of IGY and the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) made a substantial contribution to archiving weather data, but individual nations funded their own scientific activities and also contributed to the central organisation. Estimates of the total cost of the IGY range from US$200 million to over US$1000 million if the cost of logistics is included (in 1958 dollars!).

The IGY included studies of meteorology (large scale dynamic and thermodynamic processes), geophysics, the structure of the ionosphere, cosmic rays, solar activity (the sun was more active in 1957–58 than at any time in the previous 400 years), glaciology, oceanography, seismology, and the earth’s gravitational field. Globally 67 nations participated in the IGY and 12 nations had Antarctic programs. There were 40 scientific stations operated on the Antarctic continent and a further 20 on subantarctic islands. Most scientific objectives were met or exceeded, and data collected during the IGY fed scientific analyses for many years into the future. The World Data Centre (WDC) system was established for IGY data and the three WDCs (which hold duplicate data sets) continue as important repositories of geophysical data today. The Van Allen Radiation Belts were discovered during the IGY; the first artificial satellite was launched by the USSR (Sputnik-1, October 4 1957); large areas of the Antarctic continent were investigated for the first time; and the base-level of geophysical observations and research opportunities was broadened in many countries.

Equally important however was the considerable media attention that IGY attracted and the spirit of harmony that it created. The IGY caught public imagination and, despite a background of political tension (such as the Cold War and competing territorial claims in Antarctica) it provided a framework for nations with conflicting interests to work together. The IGY demonstration of international cooperation in Antarctica, with suspension of territorial rivalries, led to the establishment in 1958 of the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR) and signing of the Antarctic Treaty in 1959.

The Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR) is the committee of ICSU charged with the initiation, promotion and co-ordination of scientific research in Antarctica. SCAR is an international, interdisciplinary, non-governmental organisation which can draw on the experience and expertise of an international mix of scientists, and one function of SCAR is to provide expert scientific advice to the Antarctic Treaty System. Originally formed from the 12 nations which were active in Antarctica during the IGY, SCAR now has 27 Full Members (those countries with active scientific research programs in Antarctica), six Associate Members (those countries without an independent research program but planning for the future) and seven Union Members (other scientific bodies affiliated with ICSU that have an interest in Antarctic research).

At the working level SCAR is structured into three Standing Scientific Groups (SSGs) for geosciences, life sciences and physical sciences (formerly Working Groups). The SSGs exchange information on disciplinary scientific research being conducted by national Antarctic programs; identify research areas or fields where current research is lacking; and coordinate proposals for future research to achieve maximum scientific and logistic effectiveness. Where a requirement for a new cooperative SCAR initiative is identified, a formal proposal is developed and, if accepted by nationally appointed SCAR delegates meeting in plenary, a Scientific Programme Group (SPG) is appointed for a fixed-term to implement the cooperative program (formerly Groups of Specialists). SCAR Delegates, and the SSGs and other groups, meet every two years. Australia has hosted these biennial meetings on three occasions: SCAR III (Canberra, 1959), SCAR XXII (Canberra, 1972) and SCAR XX (Hobart, 1988). Australia will also bid to host the 2006 meeting (SCAR XXIX) in Hobart.

While the routine SCAR functions of information exchange, provision of scientific advice, etc. are important, it is the internationally cooperative programs developed within SCAR that do the most to advance Antarctic research. Possibly the largest and most successful of these was BIOMASS (Biological Investigations of Marine Antarctic Systems and Stocks). During the Second SCAR Biology Symposium in Cambridge in 1968, it became apparent that little was known of the biology, ecology and population dynamics of Antarctic krill (Euphausia superba), one of the most significant organisms in the Antarctic marine ecosystem. Foreseeing a need for substantial expansion of research on the Antarctic marine ecosystem, SCAR (together with the Scientific Committee on Oceanic Research; SCOR) established a Group of Specialists to develop a proposal for international cooperative studies in the area. This became BIOMASS, whose principal objective was to gain a deeper understanding of the structure and dynamic functioning of the Antarctic marine eco-system and to provide a basis for sustainable future management of the resource. Originally conceived as a ten year research program, BIOMASS was eventually extended over fifteen years and included two major multinational oceanographic campaigns: the First International BIOMASS Experiment (FIBEX) in 1980–1981, and the Second International BIOMASS Experiment (SIBEX) in 1983–1985. Australia's involvement in BIOMASS (including both FIBEX and SIBEX) was the impetus for establishing a high latitude deep-sea oceanographic capability, initially with a major refit of MV Nella Dan, but eventually leading to the considerable marine science capability that exists within the present Australian Antarctic Program. The scientific achievements of BIOMASS were numerous but BIOMASS was also instrumental in establishing the scientific basis that led to the development of the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) within the ATS.

Another important cooperative initiative of SCAR was the Group of Specialists on Global Change and the Antarctic (GLOCHANT) which was established in 1992. The mission of GLOCHANT was to contribute regional Antarctic science into the global International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme (IGBP) and the World Climate Research Programme (WCRP) (see next paragraph). To coordinate GLOCHANT activities a SCAR Global Change Office was established at the Antarctic CRC in Hobart in 1995. The work of the Group of Specialists wound up in 2002, but three ongoing GLOCHANT initiatives, each with considerable Australian input, continue. These are a project on Antarctic Sea Ice Processes and Climate (ASPeCt), the International Trans-Antarctic Scientific Expedition (ITASE) which is concerned with the record of the past 200 years of climate and environmental record that can be recovered from shallow ice cores (see article by van Ommen and Goodwin in this issue, p. 22) and the Antarctic Ice Margin Evolution (ANTIME) project which is concerned with the late Quaternary sedimentary record around Antarctica.

While SCAR is an organisation with regional responsibility, there are also other larger global cooperative programs developed in the decades after the IGY that are co-sponsored by ICSU. These include the World Climate Research Programme (WCRP) which deals with the physical aspects of climate, and the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme (IGBP) which is concerned with the interactive physical, chemical and biological processes that regulate the total Earth System. Two more recent international global environmental change research programs now work in close collaboration with WCRP and IGBP: the International Human Dimensions Programme on Global Environmental Change (HDP), and DIVERSITAS, an international program of biodiversity science.

WCRP grew directly from the Global Atmospheric Research Programme (GARP), itself a direct consequence of the success of the IGY. The 1970s GARP was an example of coordinated international activity that culminated in the first detailed study of the entire global atmosphere over a period of a year in 1979 – the First Global GARP Experiment (FGGE). While not including specific major activities in the Antarctic, GARP made full use of the Antarctic observing network established in the IGY, and the results of GARP, in particular the application of a global system of geostationary and polar orbiting satellites, underpins modern meteorology. The World Climate Research Programme (WCRP) was established in 1980, under the joint sponsorship of the International Council for Science (ICSU) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), and has been subsequently also sponsored by the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC) of UNESCO. The objectives of WCRP are to develop the fundamental scientific understanding of the physical climate system and climate processes needed to determine to what extent climate can be predicted and the extent of human influence on climate. The program encompasses studies of the global atmosphere, oceans, sea and land ice, and the land surface which together constitute the Earth's physical climate system.

The World Ocean Circulation Experiment (WOCE) of 1990–2002 was the first component of WCRP in which the Australian Antarctic Program made a major field contribution. The field phase of WOCE lasted from 1990–1998 and aimed to collect a 'snapshot' of detailed observations of the global ocean that would support larger objectives of developing models for predicting climate change and of identifying data sets required to monitor the long-term behaviour of the ocean and detecting changes in ocean circulation. Nearly 30 nations contributed to the WOCE in-situ observations. Within the Australian Antarctic program, seven north-south transects were made across the Southern Ocean choke-point between Hobart and Antarctica, measuring temperature, salinity and other parameters over the full-depth of the ocean. In the Southern Ocean, Australia also contributed to expendable bathy-thermograph (XBT) transects, mooring programs, and drifter deployments. WOCE field observations were supplemented by global satellite observations and the development of global numerical ocean models to assimilate the measurements. WOCE laid the basis for ongoing study of the global ocean including the demonstration of appropriate satellite and in situ observing systems and realistic global ocean models. The analysis of WOCE data continues today.

WCRP currently consists of four broad-based multi-disciplinary core projects, with the development of global climate models as an important unifying component. Two of these core-projects are most directly relevant to our Antarctic program. Climate Variability and Predictability (CLIVAR) is a follow-on project from WOCE and is the main focus in WCRP for studies of climate variability, extending effective predictions of climate variation and refining the estimates of anthropogenic climate change. CLIVAR is attempting particularly to exploit the 'memory' in the slowly changing oceans. A key scientific question in the strategy for Australia's Antarctic science program for the next five years is 'What are the Southern Ocean processes responsible for climate variability and predictability on seasonal, inter-annual, decadal and longer timescales, and how do these influence sea-level?' Work that will be undertaken to address this is based on sustained observations (hydrographic transects, robotic floats, deep-ocean moorings, satellite observations, etc.) and modelling efforts, and will both contribute to the wider CLIVAR objectives and benefit from international collaboration within CLIVAR.

The Climate and Cryosphere (CliC) Project is the most recent core project of WCRP, started in 2000 and with an expected life span of about 15 years. CliC addresses those portions of the Earth's surface where water is in a solid form (including snow cover, sea ice, lake ice and river ice, glaciers, ice caps and ice sheets, and frozen ground including permafrost) as an integral part of the climate system. The principal goal of CliC is to assess and quantify the impacts of climatic variability and change on components of the cryosphere and their consequences for the climate system, and to determine the stability of the global cryosphere. In support of this goal CliC seeks to enhance and coordinate efforts to monitor the cryosphere, to study climate related processes involving the cryosphere, and to model and understand its role in the climate system. Many CliC objectives parallel those of the Australian Antarctic glaciology program. These include determination of the role of the Antarctic ice sheet in future sea level change; the impact of sea ice on the mean state and variability of regional and global climates; the role of both sea ice and hydrological processes involving glacial ice in the overturning thermohaline circulation of the global ocean; and the acquisition of better data on past climate from Antarctic ice core records. Australian participation within CliC will be critical to achieving national objectives, which address problems involving the whole of Antarctica, not just Australia's area of operation. Climate processes in the Southern Ocean are of particular importance both to Australia and globally, and these are addressed by a combined CLIVAR–CliC Southern Ocean Panel.

While WCRP addresses physical aspects of climate, the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme (IGBP), established in 1986, is concerned with the interactive physical, chemical and biological processes that provide a unique environment for life, and the changes that are occurring in this system. IGBP has a focus on global biogeochemistry. Components of IGBP that involve, or have involved, Antarctica include the regional sub-projects Southern Ocean – Joint Global Ocean Flux Study (SO-JGOFS), concerned with the role of the oceans in the global carbon cycle, and Southern Ocean Global Ocean Ecosystem Dynamics (SO-GLOBEC), which aims to understand marine population variability in response to environmental variability. The SO-GLOBEC program focuses on Antarctic krill as the target species but also includes study of krill habitat, prey, predators and competitors, such as salps. IGBP also includes a program on Past Global Changes (PAGES). PAGES supports research aimed at understanding the Earth's past environment in order to make predictions for the future and has as one of its foci the study of paleoclimate and environmental variability in polar regions, with links to ITASE and ANTIME (see above) as well as deep ice coring. The Australian Antarctic Program has links to each of these international initiatives.

The year 2007 will mark the 125th anniversary of the First International Polar Year, the 75th anniversary of the Second Polar Year, and the 50th anniversary of the International Geophysical Year. The IPYs and IGY resulted in significant new insights into global processes, and laid the foundation for decades of invaluable polar research. A groundswell of support has arisen from the broad scientific community for a new international initiative, on these anniversaries, which recognizes the importance of polar science and acts as a springboard for further major advances. Hence, in February 2004, ICSU endorsed an International Polar Year 2007–2008 (IPY 2007–2008). ICSU will propose to the World Meteorological Organisation that the two organisations should jointly sponsor IPY 2007–2008. IPY 2007–2008 is envisioned as an intense, internationally coordinated campaign of research that will initiate the dawn of a new era in polar science. It will include research in both polar regions and involve strong links to the rest of the globe, be multi- and interdisciplinary in scope and truly international in participation. It will educate and excite the public; help train the next generation of engineers, scientists, and leaders; and include elements from a wide range of scientific disciplines, including social science. An ICSU Planning Group for IPY 2007–2008 has been established and has set the preliminary themes for the project as:

  • Understanding change at the poles
  • Exploring earth’s icy domains, and
  • Decoding polar processes.

Suggestions for IPY 2007–2008 have been canvassed from the community, and nearly 350 have been received by the Planning Group. Australian Antarctic scientists have submitted a number of these, including the suggestion that Australia leads and coordinates a ship-survey for a Census of Antarctic Marine Life. Fourteen countries have already established National Committees to work towards implementation of IPY 2007–2008. The work of the Planning Group is continuing over the next few months to develop an initial program structure, to prepare a draft Outline Science Plan, and to determine the processes and structure by which the program will be implemented. Updates on progress with IPY 2007–2008 will be available on the IPY website.

Over the last 50 years, and longer, international cooperation has been a key to the success of large-scale programs of research in the Antarctic and Southern Ocean. Australian scientists have often played a major role in the development and management of these programs, and the Australian Antarctic Program has a long record of participating in and contributing to the international programs. The benefits to both national goals and international science have been considerable. New initiatives such as the International Polar Year 2007–2008 provide a framework for ongoing fruitful cooperation.

Ian Allison, Glaciology Program Leader, AAD & ACE CRC