March 2, 2007 4:00 AM PST

Scientists seek cold, hard facts on polar changes

A two-year international research effort kicked off this week to study the polar regions and how they're tied in to global climate change, in the first such collaborative scientific project in more than 50 years.

Despite its name--International Polar Year (IPY) 2007-2008--the research project will run from February 2007 to March 2009, and it will call on scientists from 50 to 60 countries to study the Earth's north and south polar regions, or what's called the cryosphere. The stated goal is to investigate changes at the poles, enhance scientific collaboration and understanding of those regions, invest in new technologies and inspire a generation of young scientists through school curricula and public awareness.

"This planet's polar region, for most of us, conjures images of intrepid pioneers, of penguins...of inhospitable areas," Lynn Scarlett, deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior, said during the opening ceremony held this week in Washington, D.C.

"Yet the polar regions are remote only in their geographic distance from the planet's concentration of human population; they are not remote in their relevance. (They) are interconnected with the ebbs and flows of planetary changes critical to global climate, for example. Changes in polar condition affect biological, atmospheric and human systems around the world," Scarlett said.

A century of polar exploration

The IPY comes 126 years after the first-ever project began in 1881, which was eventually followed up by a second in 1932. The scientific collaboration also inspired the 1957 International Geophysical Year, which studied a broader scope of earth sciences and marked the launch of the Soviet Union's first successful artificial satellite, Sputnik 1.

Such international collaborations are designed to share the costs of technology, infrastructure and expertise needed to study the Earth as a whole. But the Polar Year also enables scientists to study otherwise desolate, remote and freezing parts of the world that are expensive to reach.

Part of the IPY mission is to engage the public in science, much the way Sputnik encouraged a generation of scientists and gave people a new picture of the Earth. U.S. scientists are particularly eager to craft school curricula around IPY because of fears that interest and aptitude in science is waning. Government funding for NASA's science research has also fallen off in recent years as the Bush administration has set priorities for sending people back to the moon and then onto Mars.

As part of a public awareness effort, the U.S. Postal Service in February issued its first-ever commemorative stamp for IPY--an 84-cent international-rate stamp that will have counterparts from eight countries, including Denmark, Finland, Greenland and Sweden. In 1958, the United States issued a 3-cent stamp to commemorate the International Geophysical Year.

IPY will also emphasize scientific research into human-natural systems at the poles; explore new scientific frontiers like plenary and molecular systems in those environments; and create multidisciplinary observing networks for ice, atmosphere and ocean.

In recent weeks, for example, scientists using NASA satellites reported finding an extensive network of lakes and waterways under an Antarctic ice stream that reveal how "leaks" in the system can affect sea level. These systems can sway sea level given that Antarctica holds about 90 percent of the globe's ice and 70 percent of its reservoir of fresh water. Scientists from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography discovered the waterways with data from NASA's highly sensitive satellites, which can capture 3D images of the waterways beneath the ice sheet and measure changes in its surface elevation.

Understanding how the ice sheet changes and affects sea level is one of the primary goals of the IPY.

"(My) hope as a result of this Polar Year is that we will have permanent observatories for ice, cryosphere, atmospheric and ocean that will last well beyond this year," said Conrad Lautenbacher, undersecretary for oceans and atmosphere at the U.S. Department of Commerce and administrator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

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3 comments

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Sounds cool.
I hope this is for true science and not just a stupid publicity stunt like 90% of the manned space stuff.

Please note, I am not anti space. I would double NASA's budget if I could. I just think that most manned missions are for publicity not science. Lets see more unmanned probes to mars, and less photo ops.
Posted by ralfthedog (1589 comments )
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Global Warming
Noy until big business is prevented from controlling this government will good come from it....if it the true spirit of freedom survives
Posted by Domestech (8 comments )
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Truthful facts needed, just not here.
I was so disappointed to listen to one of my favorite podcasts today and have to listen to nearly half of it covering global warming. This is hardly the tech news that I have come to look to CNET to cover. Global warming is a concern, so is AIDS, poverty, and civil rights. But they have no place on a tech site, nor a tech podcast. If you want to talk about the technology of how to reduce greenhouse gases, look at some of the practical ways Al Gore has reduced his personal energy consumption through the use of great technology such as geothermal heat pumps to heat his modest 4000 sq ft home, underground water collection systems, or the integration of natural flora to landscape his house and the use of grey water to irrigate his gardens. That would be practical technology that would be appropriate here.

~Rick

(oops, that was President Bush that has the modest house with all of the environmentally friendly technology. Gore is the one flying around on a private jet telling us to cut back on our energy consumption while his 20 room, 16,000 sq ft mansion uses 20 times the energy of the average American home. The Truth can be so darn Inconvenient at times).
Posted by MammothCave (8 comments )
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