Scientists look to poles for warming signs
PARIS – Children in Norway plead for snow. Polar researchers describe melting glaciers. Some experts say that within this century, the Arctic may no longer be ice-locked.
Facing this prospect, 50,000 scientists from 63 nations launched a study Thursday called the International Polar Year, to investigate how global warming is affecting the Earth’s poles and what that means for all those living in between.
It’s been 50 years since international researchers last pooled research on the polar world, known as the cryosphere. Since then, the world’s temperature has risen slowly but steadily. An authoritative report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change last month said humans were very likely to blame for this warming.
“The hour is no longer for skepticism. It is time to act, and act urgently,” Prince Albert II of Monaco, who has visited the Arctic several times, said in announcing the project in Paris. He called global warming “the most important challenge we face in this century.”
Scientists will use icebreakers, satellites and submarines to study the effect of solar radiation on the polar atmosphere, the exotic marine life swimming beneath the Antarctic ice, and the culture and politics of Arctic inhabitants.
The lifestyle of the Athabaskan, an indigenous group in northern Canada and Alaska, is already under threat, said James Allen of the Arctic Athabaskan Council.
“We are affected directly because we live off the land,” he said in Paris. “People still fish, people still trap, and we still gather food and medicine from the land. So our food source is being affected.”
In his tiny Arctic outpost of Ny-Alesund, the director of the Norwegian Polar Institute, Kim Holmen, described seeing glaciers melt at a faster rate in recent years.
The polar year is “important because it is concentrating the effort … to solve a major scientific problem of our time,” Holmen said by telephone.
Schoolchildren with signs that said “Give us back winter” and “We want snow,” built snowmen on the City Hall square and skirmished with snowballs in Oslo, Norway, to mark Thursday’s launch. The weather warmed after a two-week cold snap, leaving sidewalks and the square slushy.
At a hotel made entirely of ice in Sweden, 125 miles north of the Arctic Circle, a giant hydrogen balloon was launched to ring in the polar year project.
And in classrooms around the world, teachers conducted ice-related activities and experiments, organizers said.
Some scientists have warned the world could be heading for an ice-free Arctic.
“The projections are that ice in the Arctic will disappear in the summer months. There will no longer be perennial ice … sometime within the next century,” said Ian Allison, a co-chair of the International Polar Year committee and researcher with the Australian Government Antarctic Commission.
“This will have enormous consequences” for the 4 million people living in polar regions ” and well beyond, he said, as the melting ice disrupts ecosystems all the way to the Equator.
Russian geographer Vladimir Kotlyakov, who has studied polar regions for 50 years and is a lead figure in the polar year project, was skeptical of predictions of an ice-free Arctic. But he did not deny climate changes were already affecting Russia.
“We’ll have to change our agriculture, our industry, even our mentality as a frozen country,” he said.
The idea of cooperating internationally to study the poles was born in 1882. The last Polar Year was held in 1957-58, when Cold War tensions restricted some of that cooperation.
This year’s project is sponsored by the U.N.’s World Meteorological Organization and the International Council for Science. About $1.5 billion has been earmarked by various exploration agencies, but most of the money comes from existing polar research budgets.
The result, researchers hope, will be a more complete picture of the impact of global warming.
The experts will also try to quantify the amount of fresh water leaking out from underneath ice sheets in Antarctica. They will install an Arctic Ocean monitoring system, described as an early-warning system for climate change. And they’ll take a census of the deep-sea creatures living at the bottom of Antarctica’s Southern Ocean.
The Antarctic’s lakes and mountains ” some trapped under about three miles of ice for more than 35 million years ” will be sounded. And scientists using telescopes, balloons and spacecraft will investigate plasma and magnetic fields kicked up by the sun.
The project ends in March 2009.
“Fifty years ago was discovery. They first measured the thickness of the Antarctic ice sheets. Now we know those sheets are changing,” said David Carlson, director of the International Polar Year.
He said a key goal is to demonstrate “how important the poles are, what it is like to do polar science and what does it mean that the poles are changing.”