February 25, 2009

Polar Year Comes To A Close, Research Continues

Glacier ice appears to be melting in the western portion of Antarctica and not only on the Antarctic Peninsula, scientists reported on Wednesday in conclusion to the 2007-2008 International Polar Year.

The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) alongside the International Council for Science (ICSU) released the "State of Polar Research" report today. The IPY took into account the work of more than 160 projects from researchers in more than 60 countries and received funding of about $1.2 billion over two years.

The IPY began in March 2007 and covers a two-year period to March 2009.

"In addition to lending insight into climate change, IPY has aided our understanding of pollutant transport, species' evolution, and storm formation, among many other areas," WMO and ICSU said in a joint statement.

Researchers found that Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets are losing mass contributing to sea level rise. The warming in the Antarctic appears to be much more widespread than previously considered, they said, adding that the rate of loss in Greenland is on the rise.

"The International Polar Year 2007 "“ 2008 came at a crossroads for the planet's future" said Michel Jarraud, Secretary-General of WMO. "The new evidence resulting from polar research will strengthen the scientific basis on which we build future actions." 

Additionally, in the observation period of summers 2007 and 2008, researchers said they witnessed the minimum extent of year-round sea ice drop to its lowest level since satellite records began 30 years ago.

"These changes are signs that global warming is affecting the Antarctic in ways not previously suspected," the statement said.

"The message of IPY is loud and clear: what happens in the polar regions affects the rest of the world and concerns us all."

North Atlantic storms appear to be major sources of heat and moisture for the polar regions, researchers said.

"Understanding these mechanisms will improve forecasts of the path and intensity of storms. Studies of the ozone hole have benefited from IPY research as well, with new connections identified between the ozone concentrations above Antarctica and wind and storm conditions over the Southern Ocean. This information will improve predictions of climate and ozone depletion,"

The IPY officially ends on Tuesday, but researchers said many projects would continue to gather data.

"Everyone's excited about what they've been able to do," says IPY international program office director David Carlson.

"But they're still very much in the 'discovery phase'; it's way too early to say we've concluded this or that."

IPY also took a detailed study of the biodiversity, epidemiology, and even sociological issues in the Arctic.

"The previous IPY story had it that the typical Arctic family was five: two parents, two children and an anthropologist," Carlson told BBC News.

"We wanted to get out of that pattern and set a goal of engaging the northern residents through their communities and through their own education and research institutions as full partners.

"We don't think you can understand the current or future Arctic without understanding the health and well-being of the people up there."


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