World Ocean Observer - International Polar Year

International Polar Year 2007 Will Mark a Major Leap in Our Understanding and Appreciaton of Polar Ecosystems

Tundi Agardy, PhD.

IPY is a joint program of the International Union of Science (ICSU) and
the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) involving thousands of
scientists from over 60 countries who will conduct more than 150
physical, biological and social sciences research studies in the Arctic
and Antarctic.

(Photo by Adrienne A. Miller)


It is May of 2007 and we are well into the International Polar Year. More than a gimmick, these internationally sanctioned "years of..." are a way to focus worldwide attention on an ecosystem or issue. The International Polar Year (IPY), running from March 1, 2007 to March 9, 2009, is but one example1. IPY is a joint program of the International Union of Science (ICSU) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) involving thousands of scientists from over 60 countries who will conduct more than 150 physical, biological and social sciences research studies in the Arctic and Antarctic. But the International Polar Year (IPY) has done more than that, even in its first few months. It has focused the scientific community on cooperative research, synthesis of findings, and communication of information in ways that are unprecedented.

The March first launch of the IPY occurred with resplendent pomp and circumstance at the Palais de la Découverte, a world renowned science museum in Paris. In the U.S., the IPY kicked off with an opening ceremony for U.S. researchers and politicians held at the National Academies of Science in Washington DC. The press release from that event claims the IPY is the "largest internationally coordinated scientific research effort in 50 years". But the IPY's impact goes beyond the size of its effort to its inherent timeliness. Global climate change is all the rage and never has public attention been so riveted to the changing condition of the Arctic and Antarctic. Likewise, never has there been so much speculation on the implications of polar environmental change for the rest of the globe and all of humanity.

Focus on the Poles

The ecology of the Arctic and Antarctic is relatively poorly understood, not least because conditions are inhospitable and research is orders of magnitude more expensive than in more accessible ecosystems. Yet interest in the poles is growing exponentially as global climate change has at long last appeared on people's radar screens worldwide, and as climate change scientists have communicated messages about the relevance of polar conditions for other environments. It is no coincidence that IPY began shortly before the completion and release of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report that highlights both the potential consequences of climate change on polar systems, and the urgent need for better understanding of the link between climate conditions at the poles and subsequent sea level rise, among other issues. In a sense IPY codifies both newfound public interest and political will to quickly get better understanding of polar dynamics and ecology. It also marks the launch of exciting new tools to improve understanding, from satellites to ships to sensors2.

The focus of IPY covers oceans, atmosphere, ice, land, people and even outer space (the polar areas are the world's best sites for placing sensors such as telescopes to probe deep space). There are six major themes of research for the International Polar Year:

  • Status: to determine the present environmental status of the polar regions
  • Change: to quantify and understand past and present environmental and social change in the polar regions, and to improve projections of future change
  • Global Linkage: to advance our understanding, on all scales, of the links and interactions between polar regions and the rest of the globe, and of the processes controlling these links
  • New Frontiers: to investigate the frontiers of science in the polar regions
  • Vantage point: to use the unique vantage point of the polar regions and develop and enhance observatories from the interior of the Earth to the Sun and the cosmos beyond
  • Human Dimension: to investigate the cultural, historical, and social processes that shape the sustainability of circumpolar human societies and to identify their unique contributions to global cultural diversity and citizenship3.

This is not the first International Polar Year. Previous IPYS occurred in 1882-83, 1932-33, and 1957-58, which was also known as the International Geophysical Year, and each produced major increases in human understanding of the Earth system4. This latest IPY is characterized by a much more multidisciplinary approach, with a full range of natural and social sciences. IPY 2007-2009 will initiate a new era in polar science with a stronger emphasis on cross-disciplinary learning and strong partnerships with both educators and indigenous communities. The IPY aims not only to educate the public but also to catalyze the training of future leaders in science and engineering.

(Photo by Adrienne A. Miller)

Why Should We Care?

Today people care about the poles because of one primary issue -- the melting of ice caps and sea ice, and its potential implications for humans. Both resulting sea level rise around the world and interference with the Ocean Conveyor Belt, a circumglobal current system that delivers cold water from the poles to subtropical upwelling areas, are cause for concern. This attention almost borders on the histrionic, as more and more people wake up to the fact that dramatic changes in even the remotest parts of the planet have the ability to affect us in major ways. So while the image of polar bears floating on broken up ice packs wrenches our hearts, our minds have become fixated on the fact the change at the poles means change for us, as well.

The Arctic and Antarctic are fascinating places, ecologically, geologically, and meteorologically. The ice environments are highly dynamic, and ice- and cold- adapted organisms at each pole live in a highly tuned set of interactions with seasonal alterations in ecological conditions. The species diversity at some levels of organization has proved to be surprisingly high, and even new biomes like under-ice lacustrine environments - revealed by the recent rapid disappearance of ice in Antarctica - are being discovered even today. And who can resist penguins, leopard seals, polar bears, and walruses?


(Photo by Adrienne A. Miller)

But the pull to the poles rests on more than curiosity about the strange and wondrous patterns of nature there. The pull to the poles is an extension of our dawning (and ever-growing) realization that what we do affects even the distant poles, and what happens there in turn will affect each and every one of us, through links in ocean circulation, atmosphere and weather. Climate change, and in particular global warming, has the potential to flag the poles as the keystone in global cycles and balances - where, in the worst case scenario, the unraveling of the planet as we know it begins.

(Photo by Adrienne A. Miller)

The IPY Research Agenda

While much of the research of IPY is focused on better understanding of climate change impacts, the coordinated research effort goes well beyond that. It would be impossible to summarize all the hundreds of research initiatives occurring under the rubric of the IPY. The range of projects is astounding, but all are characterized as either multidisciplinary in nature, or having relevance to multidisciplinary studies aimed at furthering our understanding of polar systems, oceans, the earth, and outer space.

Of particular interest for readers of the Ocean Observer are those studies that address the ecology of polar areas and the link between polar systems and marine ecosystems. For years there has been interest and growing concern about the fragile ecosystems occurring at both poles, and about the indirect degradation of these systems by factors other than climate change. For instance, discoveries of toxins in the flesh of Arctic animals such as caribou and beluga whales spurred research into the origin and pathways of pollutants that reach polar areas.

One example is the EBESA (Environmental, Biological, and Ecological Studies in Antarctica), which involves researchers from Italy, Czech Republic, Chile, New Zealand, and the U.S. EBESA addresses the effects of climatic and environmental changes, and the impact of man-made contaminants, on organisms and ecosystems of northern Victoria Land, James Ross Island, and Patagonia. Included in these studies are measures to establish sources of persistent pollutants and deposition patterns. Study organisms include mosses and sponges.

Another landmark study under the IPY umbrella is the INCATPA (Intercontinental Transport of Anthropogenic Pollutants to the Arctic), which is focused on persistent organic pollutants (POPs) and mercury in the Arctic. Preliminary research has shown an astounding level of pollutants in the Arctic biota, raising questions of transport mechanisms and rates, and ultimate fate and impact. These pollutants are accumulating in the tissues of fish and wildlife, and in turn in the indigenous peoples of the Arctic who continue traditional diets. This issue carries with it the same sense of urgency as that surrounding climate change. Because the Asian Pacific region is undergoing the fastest economic growth of any region in the world, chemical use and energy consumption is expected to increase substantially. This study focuses primarily in atmospheric transport of POPs and mercury, including sources and climatic influences on transport, but it will be complemented by other initiatives looking at other transport mechanisms and their impacts.

Humans and the Poles

The human element in IPY studies and implications of those studies cannot be overstated. Another example of how IPY research has direct implications for human well being is the Arctic Human Health Initiative5, advancing the joint research agenda of the Arctic Council. This project aims to increase awareness of health concerns of Arctic peoples by fostering human health research and promoting health-protection strategies for Arctic residents.

Another human-focused initiative is the IPY Arctic Reindeer Herders' Vulnerability Network Study, known as the EALAT Network study. This interdisciplinary and intercultural study will assess the vulnerability of reindeer herding to change in key aspects of the natural and human environments6.

(Photo by Ola Røe courtesy Green Arctic)

Permafrost is a highly complex and vulnerable type of ecosystem in the polar regions. In an attempt to get better engagement of young researchers in the study of permafrost, the Permafrost Young Researchers Network (PYRN) was created under the IPY umbrella. PYRN is an international effort under the patronage of the International Permafrost Association to bring young permafrost researchers together during the International Polar Year and beyond. The first phase of the PYRN project saw more than 300 young researchers from 31 countries join the network, which is now the largest young researcher-driven network in the field of cryospheric science7.

Polar Permafrost at the mouth of the Lena River, Russia
(Photo courtesy EarthScan Lab, LSU)

Unlike IPYs in year past, this 2007-2009 IPY also embraces the arts. The Polar Artists Group, in partnership with IPY, is developing an international network of artists who focus on polar regions. Their images will go into a searchable database for easy access by galleries, museums, media, and scientists who want visuals to support their research or exhibitions8. Artists and scientists are working together in artist-in-residence opportunities, international exhibitions, conservation efforts, and an annual Passion for the Poles conference9.

Polar Relevance

All these initiatives are interesting and relevant. But the focus of polar research that will continue to capture the most public attention is undoubtedly the melting of ice and subsequent effects on oceans and coasts. Findings coming out of IPY gained an ever greater sense of urgency with the recently released report of scientists at the National Center for Atmospheric Research and the University of Colorado in Boulder showing that Arctic sea ice is melting three times faster than many scientists have projected. Scientists at the, using actual measurements, concluded Arctic sea ice has declined at an average rate of about 7.8 per cent a decade between 1953 and 2006.10 As we know from scientific studies and the popular media (epitomized by Al Gore's film "An Inconvenient Truth"), the resulting sea level rise has the potential to cause major damage in coastal areas and islands around in the world, and in surprisingly short time frames.

We have been slow to wake up to the importance and wonder of polar ecosystems. But, according to Dr. David Carlson, Director of the IPY International Programme Office "we have an enormous strength - international enthusiasm and cooperation, at a higher level and across a wider range of science than most of us will see at any other time in our careers. IPY will succeed because of this scientific urgency and energy."11

One might be tempted to ask whether IPY is behind the polar regions figuring so prominently in the news, or conversely whether the seeming newsworthiness of polar issues such as ice cap melting is driving the high profile nature of IPY. But whatever the reason, IPY has already been successful at forming connections - between scientists in different disciplines, and in people's minds as well. People are more aware today than ever that the link between polar ecosystems and humans goes well beyond the fate of Arctic peoples or the careers of polar researchers. The links between humans and the poles exemplifies the immutable connections between all the earth's systems and the delicate state of balance in which those connections are maintained. And if we could do for oceans generally what we have done for the poles through IPY and other means, people would finally begin to grasp the relevance that the health and condition of ocean ecosystems has for our condition.

(Photo by Adrienne A. Miller)

The International Year of the Ocean (IYO) in 199812 attempted to drive some of those messages home. But for a variety of reasons, IYO never had the traction that IPY has had. This is not to say the IYO did not generate public concern about the oceans and some good products besides. After all, the World Ocean Observatory itself grew out of the IPO as one of the major recommendations of the Independent Commission. But the IPY has been able to go further.

Perhaps the success of IPY has to do with its relatively narrow focus on polar ecology as contrasted to the ‘everything and the kitchen sink approach' of IYO. Or maybe marine issues inherently bring us to too many conflicts: between the developed and developing world, between small scale fishers and industrial fleets, between those who would restrict access and those who would leave open access, and between neighbors sharing contiguous coastlines, mobile marine resources, and even being the recipients of negative anthropogenic impacts like pollution. At the poles, we are blessed by relatively little human habitation and few stakes to territory (with territorial claims having been neatly negotiated in international treaties). Up until now, most of the world probably felt there was little to fight over in the highest latitudes.

Yet with the success of IPY even in its early phases, and the recognition of the importance of better understanding of polar and other ecosystems, the logical question that follows is "Why can't every year be an International Year of the Ocean and an International Polar Year?" Clearly we need to carry the momentum of interdisciplinary research and cooperation and forward. The urgency will only grow as our impacts on remote corners of the sea and globe increasingly threaten earth's systems; and us...

(Photo by Adrienne A. Miller)

For more information, visit the International Polar Year 2007-2008: and ICSU


1 For those of you clever enough to note that this is actually a two year span, the International Polar "Year" was designed to last two years in order to adequately cover seasonal cycles at both poles.




5 The Arctic Council is an eight-nation intergovernmental forum for sustainable development and environmental protection, in the areas of infectious disease, the effects of anthropogenic pollution, ultraviolet radiation, and climate variability on human health, and telehealth innovations.



8 Recent increased interest in polar issues has encouraged artists in a wide range of pursuits, follow these links for other notable projects:,




12 See and