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Scientists kick off huge polar research plan

February 26, 2007 By Michael Hopkin This article courtesy of Nature News.

International Polar Year will feature more than 220 separate projects.

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With contributions from 50,000 scientists in 63 nations, the International Polar Year, launched today, will be the most far-reaching investigation into the biology and geophysics of the Arctic and Antarctic ever mounted.

Timed to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the 1957-58 International Geophysical Year, more than 220 separate projects will survey the polar regions in unprecedented detail, looking at everything from subglacial lakes to deep-sea species. At the heart of the work are attempts to measure responses to climate change in the two regions, which are likely to be particularly affected by global warming.

By documenting the present, highlighting the changes that have already occurred, I am convinced that International Polar Year will provide us with blinding evidence and help us decide what we want our future to be.
Corinne Le Quéré, University of East Anglia
A series of events around the world unveiled the International Polar Year, which officially begins on 1 March and will run through to March 2009 so as to get data from two summers at each pole. In a video presentation from Antarctica, David Carlson, director of the IPY's international programme office in Cambridge, UK, said: "We are addressing crucial issues at a critical time. If you want to understand the global carbon cycle, or global economics, you need to understand the polar regions."

Although the research will cover a wide variety of themes, the effects of climate warming on the polar regions are a particular concern. In its assessment report released at the beginning of February, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change noted that the figure of 59 centimetres it gave for sea-level rise this century could be a significant underestimate, thanks to current uncertainty surrounding how and when ice near the poles will melt.

"The change of phase from snow and ice to water is the biggest tipping point in the Earth's system 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," said Chris Rapley, director of the British Antarctic Survey, one of the organizations behind the International Polar Year. "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: 'How much, how quickly?'."

Speaking at the London launch event, Corinne Le Quéré, an environmental researcher at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, UK, said that better knowledge of how the poles are responding to climate change will help to spur policymakers into action. "By documenting the present and highlighting the changes that have already occurred, I am convinced that the International Polar Year will provide us with blinding evidence and help us decide what we want our future to be," she said.

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