More than 50,000 scientists from 63 nations turned their attention to the world’s poles Monday to measure the effects of climate change — using icebreakers, satellites and submarines to study everything from the effect of solar radiation on the polar atmosphere to the exotic marine life swimming beneath the Antarctic ice.
The International Polar Year unifies 228 research projects under a single umbrella, with the aim of monitoring the health of the Earth’s polar regions and gauging the impact of global warming.
The ice in both polar regions is melting more rapidly than anywhere else, leading to rises in sea levels and possibly to dramatic changes in ocean currents and food chains.
The largest international research program in 50 years, the project officially begins Thursday and ends in March 2009 — allowing for a full cycle of polar seasons, which span two calendar years.
“Global warming is the most challenging problem that our civilization has faced,” Britain’s chief scientific adviser, Sir David King, said in a video played before the event’s launch. He called the melting of polar ice “the canary in the coal mine for global warming.”
One estimate suggests that if the vast Greenland ice sheet disappears, sea levels around the world will rise by 21 feet, drowning huge areas of the planet.
That fades into insignificance against the sea level rise expected if all the Antarctic ice melts.
The polar year is being sponsored by the U.N.’s World Meteorological Organization and the International Council for Science. About $1.5 billion has been earmarked for the year’s projects by various national exploration agencies, but most of the money comes from existing polar research budgets.
Coordinating the cryosphere
While the increase in resources available to explorers is modest, British scientists said the project had the potential to yield a complete picture of the threat facing the polar world — known to scientists as the cryosphere.
“What’s different this year is not so much the volume of research funding, but more the coordination of research,” said Eric Wolff, a British Antarctic survey scientist.
Besides yielding a more complete picture of the impact of global warming, the cooperation will help tackle polar science’s most vexing problems, such as the challenge of trying to quantify the amount of fresh water leaking out from underneath ice sheets in Antarctica. The melting — which is distinct from the break up of glaciers — has alarmed climate scientists because it takes place beneath the ice and is difficult to measure.
Wolff said that estimates of the leakage taken from ships off the coast of the continent offered an incomplete picture of the problem because currents could draw the melt to other areas.
“It’s only by getting all the ships that you have available to do the same thing at the same time that you get a snapshot of the whole Antarctic,” Wolff said.
Other projects include the installation of an Arctic Ocean monitoring system, described as an early-warning system for climate change, and a census of the deep-sea creatures that populate the bottom of Antarctica’s Southern Ocean.
Few aspects of the cryosphere will escape scrutiny. The Antarctic’s lakes and mountains — some trapped under about three miles of ice for more than 35 million years — will be sounded. Using telescopes, balloons and spacecraft, scientists at the poles will investigate plasma and magnetic fields kicked up by the sun — the dry, clear polar air is ideal for astronomy. Anthropologists are also planning to study the culture and politics of some of the Arctic’s 4 million inhabitants.
Although each project has its own scope, almost all touch in some way on the fear that the environment being studied might someday melt away. At the year’s launch, it was clear what scientists expected to find amid the ice and snow.
“We are now on an unsustainable path,” said Corinne Le Quere, a professor at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England. “By seeing the changes as they occur in the region where they will be occurring the fastest, the International Polar Year will provide blinding evidence of the human impact on this planet.”