The International Polar Year 2007/2008 nears its end. Today, about 120 people celebrate two years of intense and internationally coordinated scientific campaigns in earth’s two Polar Regions in the Klimahaus Bremerhaven. During the German closing event of the International Polar Year 2007/2008, they did not only look back upon new insights and successful German contributions. The researchers from all over Germany emphasized the future importance of Polar research. “A coordinated programme for Polar research bringing together the different disciplines ranging from scientific pure research to socio-economic research and research of the public sector is recommended to tackle the coming great challenges in the changing Polar Regions. It would allow a great progress”, underlines Prof. Dr. Karin Lochte, director of the Alfred Wegener Institute in the Helmholtz Association, the importance of further Arctic and Antarctic research.
Highly interesting phenomena in the Arctic and Antarctic could be observed and scientific discoveries could be made during the International Polar Year 2007/2008, which began on March 1st 2007. Advancements in interdisciplinary and international collaboration were achieved and, particularly, new insights into the role of the Polar Regions in the system earth could be gained. 300 researchers from various institutes alone from Germany were engaged in about 70 individual projects. A broad spectrum of research disciplines such as biology, geosciences, atmospheric sciences, oceanography, climate research, and human and social sciences were present. The International Polar Year made this abundance of scientific research possible through the shared usage of logistic and research oriented resources as well as the supply and the exchange of data.
Climate processes in the Arctic and Antarctic
The Polar Regions play a decisive role in earth’s climate. The warming of the Arctic and some regions of the Antarctic is many times higher than the global mean of the last decades. The extent of Arctic sea ice during the summer sank to a historical low during the International Polar Year. New data from ice and sediment cores, which allow a classification in geological time scales, allow for reliable conclusions regarding man-made changes which are not clearly differentiable from natural climate variations. Projects of the International Polar Year provide a crucial key for the improvement of global climate models. These can be particularly improved by better data from the Polar Regions.
To classify current climate development and evaluate its consequences requires a better understanding and reconstruction of past climate changes. In this sense, many projects were engaged in deciphering climate relevant processes in earth’s history. The central Arctic ocean basins and shelfs were geophysically measured and geologically probed during various expeditions. The opening of the straits around the Antarctic about 35 million years ago formed the geographical precondition for the climatic isolation of the Antarctic and the formation of the Antarctic Circumpolar Current. This lead to further cooling and glaciations of the Antarctic. However, first results from the drilling project ANDRILL on the ice shelf of the Ross Sea brought surprising clues: from the beginning of its glaciations, the Antarctic experienced periods of a small ice cover time and again. The causes are unknown so far.
History of Antarctic glaciations
The International Polar Year provided the rare opportunity to research regions and ecosystems under internationally coordinated endeavours which were hitherto nearly impossible for logistic reasons. The Gamburtsev Ranges, an Antarctic mountain range covered with a heavy ice shield, which were discovered only fifty years ago have been geophysically investigated in the international research project AGAP (Antarctica’s Gamburtsev Province). The aim is to conduct a drilling during the next years to clarify why and since when this range exists and whether it is of volcanic origin. It is assumed that glaciations of the Eastern Antarctic began 30 million years ago in this range.
Biological variety in the Antarctic
Many new things can be discovered in the oceans as well. Uncharted territory from a marine biological perspective could be investigated within the framework of CAML (Census if Antarctic Marine Life) which tries to record as many marine organisms in the Southern Antarctic Sea as possible. The ecosystem beneath the Larsen A/B ice shelf which broke off a few years ago is typical for the Antarctic, but it is one of the least known marine habitats because of its inaccessibility.
Humans and climate change
The research of the consequences of climate change on the Arctic populace is associated with the change of natural, economic and political framework. An example is the transformation of reindeer breeding in North-western Russia by a combination of economic and climate factors. There are new markets, new technologies, longer snow-free periods and thereby shifting circles of the year. The magnitude of expected climate changes, for instance the thawing of the Siberian permafrost or the changing North Atlantic fish stock will pose great challenges for the human populace of the Arctic.
Research platforms and innovative technologies
Various new research instruments were developed and employed within the framework of the International Polar Year, as well as new research platforms. The probably most outstanding large-scale project is the new German polar research station Neumayer Station III, built by the Alfred Wegener Institute. A construction team of about 70 specialists built the station on the Ekström Ice Shelf in the Antarctic in only seven months distributed over two years. The Neumayer Station III was funded by the German Federal Ministry for Education and Research (BMBF) and it will continue German research which began in 1981 for the coming 25 to 30 years. It functions furthermore as a weather forecast station and as a logistic base of the international flight network DROMLAN (Dronning Maud Land Air Network). Integrated into this network is the research plane Polar 5, a Basler BT-67 redesigned specifically for the Polar Regions. The plane which is also operated by the Alfred Wegener Institute is available for German and international research campaigns since October 2007. The technical and scientific concept for the new European research ice breaker Aurora Borealis could also be developed and presented to the public in the framework of the International Polar Year. This ship shall be put into operation in 2014.
Transparent science - Integration of the public
Great efforts have been exerted in the International Polar Year to raise public awareness for environment and climate relevant questions. Public consciousness and understanding of the role of the Polar Regions in the global system have been markedly increased by it. Many projects of the International Polar Year incorporated components of educational and knowledge transfer and reached a broad worldwide audience by means of publications, websites, brochures, films and lectures. Imparting knowledge in schools was of particular importance in many projects. Teachers had the possibility to actively participate at expeditions and interactively share knowledge with their own and other pupils in the German school project “Coole Klassen” (“cool classes”).
The International Polar Year has developed into the biggest international research initiative of the last 50 years. It was supported by the ICSU (International Council for Science) and the WMO (World Meteorological Organization).