Scientific Challenges for the International Polar Year
“Results of much greater scientific value can be expected if standard observations are made by observers using similar instructions for recording phenomena at simultaneous periods, and who exchange the results of their observations without discrimination.”
KARL WEYPRECHT 1879
The polar regions play a critical role in linked atmospheric, oceanic, terrestrial, and biological processes occurring on local and global scales. Changes first seen in the polar regions affect weather and life in many areas, including the mid-latitudes. The International Polar Year 2007-2008 is an opportunity to deepen our understanding of the physical, biological, and chemical processes in the polar regions and their global linkages and impacts and to communicate these new insights to the public at large. The most logical strategy is an international, coordinated, and intense scientific program of polar study. Such a program would not only add to our understanding of environmental change and scientific exploration, it would result in a world community with shared ownership in the results. Five broad scientific challenges provide a framework for organizing IPY 2007-2008 activities:
ASSESSING LARGE-SCALE ENVIRONMENTAL CHANGE IN THE POLAR REGIONS
Environmental observations demonstrate that dramatic change on timescales from years to many millions of years is a hallmark of Earth’s history. Comparatively small changes in climate in the past 10,000 years have had a profound effect on humans, while comparatively larger abrupt climatic changes have occurred repeatedly in the past 100,000 years (NRC, 2002). Large-scale environmental changes in the polar regions within the past few decades are more pronounced than changes in the mid-latitudes or tropics, and many of the changes being witnessed involve poorly understood linked regional and global processes. Many scientists are concerned that the climate system is being pushed toward a warmer state that
likely will have temperatures higher than at any time during Earth’s current glacial/ interglacial cycle. Yet we have an insufficient scientific basis on which to determine whether the changes are due mainly to anthropogenic effects or the effects of natural variability. Whether the changes are attributable to anthropogenic or natural causes, the impacts will still affect humans and the environment. Therefore, we must understand present changes in the context of past changes in order to develop a basis for societal response to changes occurring on our small world.
SCIENTIFIC EXPLORATION OF THE POLAR REGIONS
In many areas the changes and their causes are only partly perceived because the polar regions are not completely “mapped,” and exploration of such elements as the seafloor, the ice sheet bed, the crustal domain, and the biota is still needed to understand fully the nature and cause of past changes. While exploration will lead to answers for important geological, climatological, glaciological, and biological questions, it also will provide unexpected discoveries. The polar regions represent a biological extreme inhabited by a rich diversity of organisms uniquely adapted to their environment. Understanding this diversity, including how it functions and responds to its environment, will lead to discoveries of scientific, medical, and industrial importance (NRC, 2003a). New logistical capabilities and recently developed technologies such as autonomous vehicles, high-speed communications, and high-throughput genomic tools, coupled with international collaboration, will enable these regions to be studied in a fundamentally new way that was not possible even several years ago.
OBSERVING THE POLAR REGIONS
Our ability to describe the environmental state of the polar regions, including variability, change, and extremes, is critically limited by a lack of observations in space and time. Records of past environmental conditions, retrieved from paleoarchives such as ice cores or sediments, provide clues to nature’s response to forcing, but these too are incomplete, especially in terms of spatial coverage. Recent technological advances, including satellite observations and remotely operated equipment, demonstrate that major breakthroughs in scientific understanding of the extreme environments are possible. Realization of this potential for new insights poses a major challenge in the development of innovative technologies, the design of system-scale observing systems, and the development of strategies for interdisciplinary observations. An internationally coordinated approach will allow us to greatly advance our knowledge of the polar regions through enhanced capability to observe it with the required spatial and temporal resolution.
UNDERSTANDING HUMAN-ENVIRONMENT DYNAMICS
The ways that wildlife and humans influence and are influenced by the polar regions are parts of the picture of environmental change everywhere but occur more vigorously in the polar regions, making the high latitudes a natural laboratory for gaining a better understanding of the consequences of change to humans and to wildlife. In today’s world, society, technology, and the environment are closely linked. Because of atmospheric circulation patterns, large-scale environmental changes may
result in regional impacts that differ from the global scale, for example, thawing of permafrost in some regions, including Alaska. This affects human daily life and economic and strategic activities, including communications technologies; ground, air, and sea transportation; and failure of roadways and foundations under freeze/thaw conditions. Investigations of linked environmental-technological-social changes on human health in northern communities could enable new understanding that is applicable elsewhere. Investigations of linked physical, chemical, and biological transformations in the polar regions will enable understanding of natural reaction and contaminant impacts on the environment. Interdisciplinary science holds great promise for understanding the strong links between rapid changes in the environment, technology, and the actions of individuals and societies. The next IPY offers many venues to study these issues internationally and to develop methods for resilience.
CREATING NEW CONNECTIONS BETWEEN SCIENCE AND THE PUBLIC
Important new findings from polar research require effective communication. If the IPY results are to be long-lasting, the public must be significantly engaged in the long term and provided with an ever-increasing understanding of the global importance of the polar regions. Sparking the public’s interest in these regions will not be difficult. Americans of all ages are fascinated by the polar regions, the history of their exploration, their cultures, and the scientific research that results. In addition, human activities are affecting the polar regions; increasing public awareness that the polar regions play a key role in the Earth system, and may be harbingers for detecting some environmental change, is of critical importance. However, effectively communicating our scientific knowledge to the public is a significant challenge. Innovative use of the media and the internet will provide real opportunities for the public to experience and become involved in the IPY. The involvement of teachers, students, and scientists working together will engage current students to consider science as a career. These efforts will expand the public’s understanding of science in general and promote international understanding.