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Massive International Polar Research Effort Begins

Thursday, March 1, is the official start of the International Polar Year. The international research and educational effort officially runs till March 2008. At least 50,000 scientists from more than 60 countries are involved. Paul Sisco explains why.

The Polar ice caps are among the most forbidding and inhospitable places on Earth, with their frigid temperatures, violent storms and prolonged winds. But to many of the scientists who work there, they are beautiful and fascinating.

“This is one of my favorite places to be,” says Paul Ponganis, just one of the many scientists taking part in the coordinated research effort launched this week. He studies empire penguins at the South Pole.

"These animals can survive under conditions where their body oxygen levels are very low, levels which could cause trauma to our tissues so their adaptations could be very relevant to basic understanding of some physiological processes in medicine," he said.

International Polar Year, or IPY, is one of the largest collaborative science programs ever attempted. It is sponsored by the United Nations and the International Council of Scientists, and it aims to help us understand and address problems brought on by climate change.

Polar scientist Robin Bell told a news conference, "These are places we can't go alone, and IPY offers us a unique opportunity through collaboration with the international science community.

"This set of problems are the one we can not address as single nations,” she continued. “Our understanding of the pole regions will be advanced. We'll end up with a polar observation system in the Arctic and the Antarctic. We are certain to encounter new discoveries and advances in our understanding, but just as important will be what we have heard time and again, the outcome will be a new generation of scientists and engineers who will be motivated to understand our planet and address the pressing issues of change. This IPY is an opportunity of a lifetime," said the senior researcher.

Professor Donal Manahan has been working in Antarctica for more than 20 years.

"Polar science really matters to you -- and by you I mean the general public. The cold biosphere dominates planet Earth, not just the poles, but even the deep ocean. Most of planet Earth is cold,” said the University of Southern California researcher. “And I think one of our challenges in IPY is to make the public aware of the importance of the poles. It's not just some little thing at the top and the bottom of the Earth that matters to a few scientists, it matters to everybody."

And that is what this concentrated, coordinated, year of international research at the North and South Pole is all about.