For the next two years, more than 10,000 scientists from 63 nations will study the earth's polar regions and their links to the rest of the globe. The International Polar Year  gets underway [March 1] at a critical time in the planet's history.

Global warming is the central focus of the International Polar Year. Speaking at IPY kickoff ceremonies at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, Columbia University senior scientist Robin Bell says the poles are a barometer of environmental change and are crucial to life on earth. "The science plan really targets capturing the status of the poles, what's going on, quantifying that change, understanding how that change is linking to the rest of the world, pushing the frontiers of science."

It will take two years - from March 2007 to March 2009 - to gain access, complete measurements and remove equipment from polar regions.

The initiative, overseen by the International Council for Science and the World Meteorological Organization, will involve almost all areas of science, including the social sciences. The more than 200 IPY projects will cover areas as diverse as ecology, astronomy and human health among indigenous peoples.

Bell says researchers plan to study changes to permafrost, the melting of polar ice sheets and marine life in the cold and dark.

"Scientists will be capturing records of environmental change, whether it is from the ice sheets of Greenland or Antarctica or sediments from impact crater lakes in Siberia or from the Ross Sea."

Scientists will also operate autonomous underwater vehicles at the Gackle Ridge underneath the arctic sea ice to look for vent communities. She says they will also be using aircraft and traverse vehicles to reach "some of the parts of our planet that haven't been visited for decades."

IPY nations will spend approximately 1.5 billion dollars on many initiatives, which National Science Foundation. Director Arden Bement says include developing better tools and facilities. "We'll be putting in new infrastructure, new observing systems. We will be putting in new logistical operations and we will be collecting data collectively on a global scale. And more than anything else we will be coming closer to a base line of current conditions than ever before."

Bement says communicating that data to other scientists and to the general pubic is a top priority. "And, in time we will develop cyber infrastructure tools to convert that data into knowledge and that's an ongoing effort."

It's also an ongoing effort for the U.S. Geological Survey, which is among the many federal agencies with IPY projects underway. USGS director, Mark Myers, says his agency expects to provide free web access to its vast archive of 400,000 Antarctic photographs. "We're trying to make significant efforts to get beyond the two year [IPY] data and kind of catch up between the last polar year and this polar year in respect to making that data digitally available to the public."

Columbia University's Robin Bell says she would like to see the public actively engaged, especially since international collaboration in this effort is unprecedented. She hopes IPY will inspire the next generation of scientists, engineers and leaders to address the pressing issues of a changing planet.