Ice-Breaking News

The International Polar Year event at the National Academies in Washington, D.C. on Monday took place amidst aptly-themed weather conditions—melting snow and ice. Plenty was there to get the scoop from scientists and government leaders on what’s in store for the North and South poles during the next two years.

The event kicked off U.S. involvement in the International Polar Year (IPY), a two year research project in the Arctic and Antarctic regions (yes, that’s right, this “year” is actually two years, in order to complete two annual observing cycles). From March 1, 2007 to March 1, 2009, more than 50,000 scientists from 63 nations will collaborate in conducting extensive research in two of the most unexplored areas in the world: the North and South poles.

Organized by the International Council for Science (ICSU) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), IPY will focus on earth, land, people, ocean, ice, atmosphere, space, and education and outreach. More than 228 research projects have been proposed for the next two years.  With such sweeping changes taking places in the Artic and Antarctic (decreasing sea ice cover, thawing permafrost, thinning glaciers, surface temperature increase—shall we go on?), research in the poles is crucial--now more than ever. 

The National Science Foundation (NSF)will lead the U.S.’s IPY research efforts. The agency’s projects will include exploring life in cold and dark regions, observing environmental arctic change and studying ice sheet dynamics, and learning how animals adapt to extreme environments. Some additional American participants include the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Smithsonian Institution, US Artic Research Commission, US Geological Survey (USGS), and NASA. Another IPY focus will be on indigenous peoples--one study by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), for example, will investigate how the changing arctic environment affects human health. Education is also a major facet of this IPY, in the hope of inspiring a generation of future scientists.

But one gray area made evident during the event is whether there will be enough funding to accommodate America’s extensive involvement with IPY. NSF’s director, Arden Bement, Jr., said that the agency would receive full funding, while others (like NOAA and NASA) were unclear about whether they would have the budget to complete their proposed research projects. 

“We all know that it all comes down to money insofar as whether we can advance these initiatives,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) on Monday. “With this two year focus on IPY, the time is now to make sure our budget reflects the priorities that you’ve heard discussed. It’s one thing to talk about it, it’s another thing to find the money to fund it. We’ve got to find a way.  The US can and should be taking a leadership role in IPY.”

Despite the budgetary concerns, we here at Plenty are pretty psyched about IPY. We’d like to see as much groundbreaking (or should we say, ice breaking) research as possible during the next two years. Since polar warming will certainly have a global impact, it’s safe to say that the research would be a sound investment.



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