The icy Arctic at the top of the world and the penguin-inhabited Antarctica at the bottom help keep the planet cool and contain much of the Earth's fresh water locked up in ice sheets.
the poles' importance, little is known about them.
"We know more about Mars in some ways than we know about the
poles," said Robin Bell, chairwoman of the National Academy of
Sciences' Polar Research Board.
Researchers from around the world are joining forces to better understand these remote regions -- and how they interact with the rest of the planet -- during the next two years, from March 2007 to March 2009.
Termed the International Polar Year, or IPY, the concentrated research effort comes 50 years after the International Geophysical Year of 1957-58. During the IGY, scientists from 67 countries set their sights on Antarctica, learning, for example, that its ice sheet was two miles thick. Russian and American scientists also launched the first artificial satellites into Earth orbit.
Since then, with improvements in technology, researchers are hoping to get a baseline of data about the poles that will help with scientific research for the next 50 years.
Purpose of polar years
Past polar years, which took place in 1882-83 and again in 1932-33, focused on only one pole or the other, and participants were basically learning how to do science across international boundaries, said Bell, who is also chairwoman of the U.S. IPY Committee.
This time, the IPY is actually two years to allow extended study of both poles and to give time for groups to coordinate. The infrastructure set up during this research period is expected to help future study of these regions.
One of the rationales for the IPY is that the poles are changing faster than previously thought. "If we don't put in place systems to watch them, we won't be able to understand them as a species," Bell said.
The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy appointed the National Science Foundation to spearhead the funding of the American effort. The NSF also funds the NewsHour's Science Unit.
The International Council for Science and World Meteorological Organization are working on integrating the 200 projects involving more than 60 nations.
When deciding which projects to pursue, scientists considered the problems that they couldn't solve as individuals or even individual nations, Bell explained. So when exploring a mountain range in East Antarctica -- one the size of the Alps -- researchers will make use of icebreakers, surface vehicles, airplanes and instruments contributed by different countries.
The Gamburtsev mountain range is considered the "birthplace of the Antarctic ice sheet," according to Bell. "It's also where we'll find the oldest ice." Scientists will be able to trace climate changes by extracting ice cores or tubes out of the 30-million-year-old ice.
Chinese scientists plan to drill into the ice sheet and monitor the polar upper atmosphere.
NASA, meanwhile, plans to combine its Earth-observing satellites with surface and air-based tools to monitor the sea ice, ice sheets and atmosphere at both poles, studying the interactions between the polar surface and atmosphere.
And, in a new emphasis on social sciences, researchers will incorporate observations about wildlife and other environmental factors by local populations in the far northern regions.
"They're the people on the ground witnessing the changing environment," Bell said.
Other U.S. federal agencies involved in the IPY include the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U.S. Geological Survey, Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service, Smithsonian Institution, Department of Energy, Department of Defense and National Institutes of Health.
Sifting through the data
The National Snow and Ice Data Center will corral and organize the thousands of data streams generated during the IPY in the physical, biological and social sciences, said Ted Scambos, lead scientist at NSIDC, which is housed at the University of Colorado at Boulder and receives funding from federal agencies.
The goal is to improve scientific modeling of the poles. The poles themselves are sensitive to changes in climate, and they in turn have a huge impact on the rest of the world's environment.
More information about how the Earth's systems interact will better equip scientists to parse out how much of climate change is due to natural variability, compared to human activities, Scambos said.
The surge in research on an internationally coordinated scale makes sense for the polar caps, he continued. "When one group is measuring on one side of Antarctica, they know another group is measuring something similar" in another area.
NSIDC also is working to make the information understandable so that people may learn about the importance of the polar regions and how changes there will affect them at home, said Scambos.
"These are not far-off places. The changes will affect [people] on their doorsteps."
A better-informed public also will be able to contribute toward finding solutions where needed, with the potential costs and risks in mind, he said.
And the legacy of the IPY will be the observing networks put in place that will monitor the poles over a long period of time, such as the salinity and temperature changes in the water under the Arctic ice, to inform people for many years to come.