International effort combines polar research

By Raphael G. Satter
The Associated Press

LONDON — 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 largest international research program in 50 years, the project officially begins Thursday and will end in March 2009.

“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.”

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.

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 breakup of glaciers, has alarmed climate scientists because it takes
place beneath the ice and is difficult to measure.

Wolff said 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. And using telescopes, balloons and spacecraft, scientists at the poles will investigate plasma and magnetic fields kicked up by the sun.

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