International polar snapshot

Continental ice and penguins.
Satellite measurements show the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets are losing mass. (Photo: Rene Robert, IPF)
Herder Piotr Terent'ev drives a team of reindeer for the NOMAD project.

At the end of the International Polar Year (IPY), evidence of the widespread effects of global warming in the polar regions is mounting. According to the report, The State of Polar Research, released by the World Meteorological Organisation and the International Council for Science on 25 February 2009, the evidence includes:

  • satellite measurements showing that the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets are losing mass and contributing to sea level rise, and that the rate of ice loss from Greenland is growing;
  • new data confirming that warming in Antarctica is more widespread than previously thought;
  • a decrease in the summer minimum extent of Arctic perennial sea ice by roughly one million square kilometres;
  • an unprecedented rate of ice drift across the Arctic basin, indicating changes in the Arctic ice-ocean-atmosphere system;
  • oceanographic measurements showing the southern flank of the Antarctic Circumpolar Current has warmed more rapidly than the global ocean average;
  • freshening of dense bottom water in some locations in Antarctica – consistent with the increased melt from Antarctic ice shelves and ice sheet;
  • substantial changes in the type and extent of vegetation in the Arctic due to global warming, including transitions from grasses to shrubs, and shifts in tree lines related to an alteration in patterns and timing of snowfall.

As well as climate change-related findings, IPY research has also:

  • uncovered a rich, colourful and complex range of life in the Southern Ocean;
  • found that some microbial species occur in nearly identical form in both Arctic and Antarctic ecosystems;
  • shown that storm systems in the North Atlantic are a major source of heat and moisture in the Arctic – this knowledge will improve forecasting the paths and intensities of storms;
  • identified large pools of carbon stored in permafrost, which are likely to contribute to greenhouse gases as the permafrost melts;
  • begun to look at human health issues in the Arctic.
These wide-ranging IPY findings come from more than 160 endorsed science projects assembled from researchers in more than 60 countries. One third of the IPY projects took place in and around Antarctica.

But the work is not over yet. As well as scientific and social research, the IPY enabled an expansion of observational systems, facilities and infrastructure at the poles, for collecting data and monitoring change into the future. These include establishment of a number of new Antarctic stations and steps toward development of sustained, multidisciplinary and integrated environmental observing systems in both polar regions.

According to The State of Polar Research report, the IPY also offered an opportunity to hundreds of graduate students and post-doctoral researchers in many specialties to be trained to meet new polar challenges. The Association of Polar Early Career Scientists was formed, offering and promoting career development, collaboration, leadership and education and outreach tools and opportunities. Arctic residents, indigenous peoples, and their organizations, were also involved as partners and leaders in international IPY projects, providing a foundation for their future engagement.

The task ahead will be to translate observations into more reliable predictions. However, a functioning data archive that will allow scientists around the world to access all data and observations collected during the IPY is not yet in place. The IPY data-management committee is working on options for setting up a data-sharing system.

In the next two to four years the focus will be on integrating IPY research into the upcoming assessments of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the deliberations of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Major IPY conferences in 2010 (Norway) and 2012 (Canada) will ensure further assessment and reporting of IPY results to shape the future directions of polar research.

IAN ALLISON

Co-Chair, Joint Committee for the IPY

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