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As Polar Year Ends, Researchers Look for Climate Clues in Mountains of Data

The mission of the IPY, which actually spanned two years — from March 2007 to March 2009, was to get a clearer picture of what is happening at the poles, and how they interact with the land, oceans and atmosphere, in order to improve the scientific understanding of how they might impact the global climate and societies in the future.

About three dozen countries — and in the United States, numerous federal agencies and academic and research institutions — collaborated on hundreds of research projects in the Arctic and Antarctica, sharing resources, equipment and findings.

The resulting “enhanced international science community” studied the poles in ways the nations couldn’t have on their own, said Robin Bell of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University. She also chaired the National Academy of Sciences’ Polar Research Board. “In some sense it’s just remarkable to have seen it happen,” she said.

Bell said insights into how the poles function will start to roll out over the next three to four years as researchers study and sort all of the ice core and sediment records and other observations. “We all have reams of [data sets] on our desks in terabytes, gigabytes that we’re in the process of interpreting and understanding,” she said.

And not all of the projects were completed during the IPY. In some instances, just the instruments were installed, as was the case of the Polar Earth Observing Network, or POLENET, Bell continued.

The POLENET project involves gathering GPS and seismic data from new stations scattered around the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets. The information that will flow over the next two years will help scientists understand how the ice sheets are changing due to climate change, according to the project’s Web site.

Another goal of the IPY was to train the next generation of scientists and engineers, who will continue to research the Arctic and Antarctica for the next 30 to 40 years, said Bell. “One of the huge results is this strong, vibrant next generation of scientists and engineers who are really honed and ready to tackle these difficult problems,” she said.

The last IPY, called the International Geophysical Year, took place 50 years ago. Since then, technological developments such as satellites have enabled scientists to step up their understanding of the Earth’s caps.

One of the projects, known by the initials AGAP, surveyed East Antarctica’s Gamburtsev Mountain range — under 2 miles of million-year-old glacier ice. Two aircraft equipped with radar and laser instruments flew back and forth over the top of the mountains, the equivalent of flying around the world four times, to get a detailed image of the mountains and lakes underneath the ice, Bell explained.

The Gamburtsev Mountain range is in essence the birthplace of the Antarctica ice sheet, she said, and by studying the range scientists will learn how the ice sheets grow and shrink and how often the Antarctica ice sheets have come and gone in the past. The work involved U.S. scientists and teams from Australia, Britain, Canada, China, Germany and Japan.

The timing of the next IPY — whether it is in 50 years, 25 years or sooner — will depend on the next generation of scientists, how society adapts to the changing planet and how fast the poles change, said Bell.

Studies show the Arctic melting at a faster clip than previously anticipated, raising the question of whether the Arctic will be around in 50 years, but Bell said the answer is yes.

“The Arctic will be there, it might just be an easier place to get through with ships. The ice sheet might be smaller, but the Arctic will still be there as an important part of the global climate system whether the top of the pole is ice-free or not,” she said.

Meanwhile, the researchers have their mountains of new information to archive. “We may not know all the right questions to ask of these data sets, but they will be there for future generations to look at and be able to use to understand how our planet works,” said Bell.

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