Volume 56(4) — October 2007

International Polar Year 2007-2008

by I. Allison1, M. Béland2, D. Carlson3, D. Qin4, E. Sarukhanian5 and C. Smith6




Frozen regions, particularly large polar expanses of permafrost, sea ice and ice sheets, represent some of the most compelling and awesome features of planet Earth. These regions of low Sun angle, of (seasonally) continuous daylight and of unusually high surface reflectivity provide fascinating visual images, from the intricacies of ice crystals to the white-furred and white-feathered animals to the soaring vaults and fissures of icebergs and glaciers. Increasingly, we recognize that the ecological and climatic complexities and impacts of polar regions match and exceed the visual intricacies and impacts. Poised where slight heating will convert ice to water, the frozen regions represent places of exquisite sensitivity to global warming, places where small changes can produce dramatic consequences for polar ecosystems, for inhabitants and for the global climate system itself.

The evidence of significant change already underway, an urgent need to improve climate models and to confirm their polar predictions with observations and the as yet unmet challenge of achieving an integrated understanding of geophysical- ecological-social systems are drawing worldwide scientific attention once again to the polar regions. Polar regions remain difficult places to live and work, both for residents and scientific visitors. However, polar research builds on a tradition of international scientific and logistic cooperation. That tradition, the urgency to understand the frozen parts of the planet and the opportunity to commemorate 50 years since the International Geophysical Year (1957-1958) led to the International Polar Year 2007-2008.

International Polar Year 2007-2008

montageThe International Council for Science (ICSU) and WMO recently launched the International Polar Year (IPY) 2007-2008, which will involve scientists from 63 nations and a broad range of disciplines. The official IPY 2007-2008 observing period is from 1 March 2007 until 1 March 2009 in order to include a complete annual cycle of observations in the Arctic and in Antarctica. IPY 2007-2008 builds on a 125-year history of internationally coordinated study of polar regions, extending back to the first and second IPYs (1882-1883 and 1932-1933), sponsored by the International Meteorological Organization (WMO’s predecessor). IPY 2007-2008 marks the 50th anniversary of the International Geophysical Year (1957-1958), which ICSU and WMO co-sponsored.

A Framework for the International Polar Year 2007-2008, developed by an ICSU Planning Group with WMO participation in November 2004 (Rapley et al., 2004), outlined science goals; data management goals and plans; a strategy for education, outreach and communication; and a structure for the organization and implementation of IPY 2007-2008. Six themes, identified from extensive input from the polar science community, provide the overall goals for specific activities comprising the IPY 2007-2008 (see box below).

Most IPY projects seek to achieve more than one of the IPY goals. For example, many projects that address Theme 1 (Status) involve establishing baseline observations and thus also address Theme 2 (Change). The full set of endorsed IPY proposals clearly demonstrates both the breadth and depth of the planned science for IPY.

The development of IPY research activities has been driven as a bottom- up process by active researchers in many countries. This is overseen and coordinated by an ICSU/WMO Joint Committee for IPY that is made up of leading international polar scientists and replaced the original Planning Group in 2004. A total of 228 projects, including 57 addressing education and outreach, have been formally endorsed as IPY activities by the ICSU/WMO Joint Committee as of June 2007 (http://www.ipy.org/). The IPY core participants are self-organizing groups of researchers, international organizations and consortia of national governmental and non-governmental agencies. An overview of planned IPY 2007-2008 activities by the ICSU/WMO Joint Committee for IPY based on the research plans and objectives of endorsed projects can be found in the Scope of Science for IPY 2007-2008 (Allison et al., 2007)

IPY 2007-2008 will leave a legacy of observing sites, facilities and systems to support ongoing polar research and monitoring as the basis for observing and forecasting change. The Polar Year will strengthen international coordination of research and enhance international collaboration and cooperation in polar regions, including that among scientists, local residents, and their institutions of scholarship, education, health and environmental protection.

The six IPY themes

1. Status: to determine the present environmental status of the polar regions.

2. Change: to quantify and understand, past and present natural environmental and social change in the polar regions; and to improve projections of future change.

3. Global linkages: to advance under­standing on all scales of the links between and interactions of polar regions and the rest of the globe, and of the processes controlling these.

4. New frontiers: to investigate the frontiers of science in the polar regions.

5. Vantage point: to use the unique vantage point of the polar regions to develop and enhance observatories from the interior of the Earth to the Sun and the cosmos beyond.

6. Human dimension: to investigate the cultural, historical and social processes that shape the sustainability of circumpolar human societies and to identify their unique contributions to global cultural diversity and citizenship.

The IPY projects will attract, engage and develop a new generation of researchers and experts. Further, IPY will raise the awareness, interest and understanding of polar residents and their community institutions, as well as educators, students, the general public and decision-makers worldwide, of the purpose and value of polar research and observations. Building on existing and new funding sources, projects developed as part of the Polar Year will optimize the use of available polar observing systems, logistical assets and infrastructure and develop and embrace new technological and logistical capabilities.

Urgencies for polar research

IPY science covers an enormous range of topics and specialties. All the IPY projects address challenging science issues driven by the need to understand changes in polar regions. IPY science goals will evolve as time and discovery refine and refresh our understanding. Four key issues stand out as requiring urgent attention.

Shrinking snow and ice: rapid change in polar regions

As a result of a positive feedback mechanism in which reduced snow and ice cover increases solar heat absorption, the atmosphere and the ocean are warming much faster in some areas of the polar regions than elsewhere on the planet. The results are plain to see: IPY is taking place amidst abundant evidence of changes in snow and ice, with reductions in extent and mass of glaciers and ice sheets, reductions in area, timing and duration of snow cover and reductions in extent and thickness of sea ice. The Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change notes clear indications that, over the past decade, the rate of reduction of many snow and ice masses has accelerated (Lemke et al., 2007).

Permafrost, ground that remains permanently below the freezing point, covers about 25 per cent of the northern hemisphere landmass and shows substantial change, mostly in the form of thermal decomposition due to warming climate. Permafrost degradation affects local ecology and hydrology, as well as coastal and soil stability. Changes to the distribution of land snow cover, in the amount and timing of snow-melt runoff from snow packs and the shrinkage of polar and mountain glaciers, all impact the hydrological cycle and land vegetation patterns at scales from local to global.

Arctic sea ice cover is shrinking, opening the prospect of trans-Arctic sea routes. Polar bears, seals, walruses and other ice-associated marine species are at risk as their habitat disappears, with consequences for many polar residents and their traditional cultures and economies. The Southern Ocean sea ice is also decreasing around much of the Antarctic Peninsula but around the eastern Antarctic, the sea-ice extent is still stable.

Changes in sea-ice cover, coupled with surface warming and, in the north, changes in river runoff, will have consequences for several globally significant marine fisheries. There is evidence that populations of shrimp-like krill that feed the whales, seals and birds of the Southern Ocean have declined significantly near the Antarctic Peninsula, where winter sea-ice cover is vital for the growth of krill larvae. Declines in some penguin species are becoming apparent, but the picture is complicated by the tendency of other species to migrate south as the ocean warms and the sea ice retreats.

The observations and modelling studies of IPY will document and quantify the extent, rate and impact of the changing snow and ice environments in both polar regions.

Global linkages: interactions between the poles and the rest of the Earth

In the atmosphere, surface air temperatures over large areas of the Arctic and on the Antarctic Peninsula have risen considerably faster than the global average, partly because of the ice-albedo feedback that amplifies climate change in polar regions. Above the Antarctic, tropospheric temperatures have significantly warmed, while the stratosphere has cooled; stratospheric cooling enhances the southern hemisphere ozone hole. Global warming has also led to poleward-intensified westerly winds that strengthen the Antarctic Circumpolar Current, contribute to Southern Ocean warming, change the depth, timing and intensity of nutrient resupply to Southern Ocean ecosystems and, of course, link to hemispheric and global atmospheric circulation and transport patterns. Permafrost degradation, mentioned above, may also mobilize vast reserves of frozen carbon, some of which, as methane, will increase the global greenhouse effect.

Matt Godbold, Australian Antarctic Division
(© Commonwealth of Australia)

Parallel and related changes in the polar oceans also link to global changes. The ocean conveyor belt (the thermohaline circulation) that transports heat around the globe and connects ocean circulation between the Arctic and the Antarctic is driven by cold dense water sinking in the polar regions. As polar waters warm, as sea-ice production decreases and as river inputs (in the Arctic) increase, warmer, fresher polar waters lose their tendency to sink, leading to substantial changes in the ocean circulation patterns that moderate global climate.

Changes in the large ice sheets will have a global impact on sea-level, affecting human populations living in coastal and low-lying areas. Global sea-level rose at an average rate of some 1-2 mm/yr during the 20th century in response both to thermal expansion (a warmer ocean occupies more space) and to the melting of mountain glaciers and ice caps. In recent years, the rate has risen to 3 mm/yr, probably reflecting some addition from melting polar ice sheets.

The polar regions generally do not contain significant industrial or commercial sources of contaminants. Yet contaminants show up in the ecosystems of both the Arctic and the Antarctic, often in high (biomagnified) concentrations in animals at the tops of polar ecosystems. These are the same animals (bears, seals, fish, caribou) consumed as traditional foods by northern societies. We can say with certainty that pollutants emitted into the atmosphere elsewhere on the planet have affected, and will continue to affect, Arctic residents. Migratory birds, fish and animals transport some of these pollutants, as well as diseases; their seasonal migrations represent rapid biological linkages between temperate and polar regions. As polar weather, polar climate and polar ecosystems change, the routes and fates of these pollutants may also change. The continued accumulation of pollutants in polar regions reminds us of inescapable global interconnections.

IPY research will enhance understanding of these linkages and their impact for global human societies. It will also enhance our skill in predicting future Earth system changes.

Neighbours in the north

Northern people are experiencing changes in weather, soils and vegetation and food availability, concurrent with, and complicated by, changes in economic pressures and opportunities, information systems, options for self-determination (governance) and urgent immediate issues of housing, education and jobs. Just as climate changes threaten polar and global biodiversity, they likewise threaten polar and global cultural diversity.

  reindeer & herder

The economically and culturally important Arctic activities of hunting, fishing and herding are being challenged and stressed by climate and geopolitical changes. IPY projects are addressing a wide range of traditional human activities in the context of a changing Arctic.
(Bryan and Cherry Alexander)

IPY research, guided by and in partnership with polar residents, local communities and their institutions, will seek to understand the complex factors that determine individual well-being and community resiliency in the face of extraordinary environmental and social change. IPY researchers will focus on northern human well-being, particularly the impacts of pollution on humans, contaminants and parasites in traditional foods and various aspects of health: existing and emerging infectious diseases, chronic diseases and unhealthy life-styles. Understanding polar regions also requires an understanding and assessment of human activities. These include (potentially in both polar regions) harvesting of natural resources, exploitation of mineral and energy resources, transportation, tourism and production and dispersion of pollutants.

A comprehensive, accurate, useful and relevant understanding of the integrated Arctic system requires engagement with northern people as partners in planning and conducting the research, evaluating the results, disseminating the information and assessments and building legacies.

New frontiers

New polar scientific advances will occur across a broad range of research specialties, from previously inaccessible realms of polar genomes to unseen areas of the Earth’s crust beneath the ice. Many scientific frontiers in the polar regions lie at the intersection of disciplines and progress will be made by new observational techniques, interdisciplinary cross-analysis and advances in computing and communication.

What secrets, what clues to the planet’s past lie under the ice? How does life survive extreme cold and long dark? What structural and physiological adaptations evolved in cold waters and propagated throughout the oceans? What marvels of photochemistry occur when spring’s first light strikes winter snow? How do microbial communities in the upper ocean influence cloudiness in the atmosphere above? What subtle richness of behaviour, language and knowledge has allowed human communities to survive in the Arctic for thousands of years? Can ancient solid silent ice hold so much history and yet change so fast? IPY represents a unique opportunity to probe collectively these intellectual frontiers, explore unseen places, develop new concepts and theories and set the stage for predictions, assessments, recommendations and future discovery through international collaboration and partnership.

IPY legacies

IPY 2007-2008 will significantly extend our understanding of processes in polar regions and their global linkages—and it will leave a rich legacy that includes, among others, large-scale baseline datasets against which future change can be assessed, new and enhanced observing systems and a new generation of scientists and leaders trained and motivated to carry this legacy into the future.


Building an integrated dataset from the broad range of IPY research activities represents one of IPY’s most daunting challenges. An enduring dataset, accessible to scientists and the public during IPY and for many decades into the future, will represent one of IPY’s strongest legacies.

IPY starts from a strong and clear data policy: “IPY data, including operational data delivered in real time, are made available fully, freely, openly, and on the shortest feasible timescale”. There are exceptions only to protect confidentiality of information about human subjects, to respect needs and rights of holders of local and traditional knowledge and to ensure that data release does not lead to harming endangered or protected resources.

An IPY Data and Information Service (DIS) will build on ICSU and WMO strategies for future data systems. Planning and implementation of the IPYDIS will occur in partnership with the contemporaneous Electronic Geophysical Year (eGY). The technical solutions necessary to implement the IPYDIS will comply with advanced international standards for interoperability and for metadata. A successful IPYDIS will engage and connect many national and international data centres and promote the development of common formats, improved reference systems and geographic browsers. In partnership with eGY, IPY promotes behaviours and systems that ensure consistent and accurate acknowledgement of data sources by all data users. Ensuring proper attribution across IPY disciplines and datasets will highlight the need within science for a system of review and citation of the datasets themselves.

The IPYDIS and the long-term IPY data legacy will involve many innovative solutions driven by the need to integrate and preserve a vast array of data combined with advances in storage and communication technologies, in real-time data assimilation, and in conceptual systems for integrating and exchanging information. In addition to these technical and infrastructural solutions, IPY will set a new standard in scientific collaboration as rapid and unrestricted data exchange becomes an accepted and enabling factor in daily research.

aurorae Aurorae are the most obvious visual indication in the polar regions of the interaction of the Earth’s magnetosphere and upper atmosphere. The polar regions offer unique platforms for studies of the atmosphere; the image illustrates the Super-DARN (Dual Auroral Radar Network) radar in the Antarctic used for global ionospheric studies in conjunction with similar radar facilities in the Arctic.
(British Antarctic Survey)

Observational systems

The infrastructure and comprehensive polar observing systems developed during IPY 2007-2008 will provide the potential basis for long-term observing networks to support polar research for decades to come. This will be a particularly significant legacy of IPY 2007-2008 since change and the ability to observe and quantify change in the polar regions will serve as a harbinger for monitoring global changes. The high-intensity observing period of the IPY years will provide detailed observations that can, through the integration of observations and advanced numerical models, guide the design of cost-effective, feasible observing systems for the future.

Enhanced observing systems endorsed as part of IPY include ocean observing systems, including sea ice, in the Arctic and the Antarctic; the polar components of global-scale atmospheric observing systems; restored and enhanced pollution monitoring networks; circumpolar permafrost observational networks; geophysical and geodetic observations of ice sheets and sub-ice properties and processes; and inter-agency coordinated efforts to provide essential satellite observational products. Substantial efforts will go into marine and terrestrial biodiversity monitoring systems, in both hemispheres, and to upgrading or installing new space observing systems looking outward through the clear dry polar atmospheres. Perhaps as important as any of these, and possibly more complicated, researchers and residents in the Arctic will build community monitoring networks and pan-Arctic information exchange systems to acquire and share essential local information about polar conditions and polar change.

Observing systems evolving from IPY will develop within the framework of, and as contributions to, the larger global observing systems (e.g. the Global Earth Observation System of Systems; the WMO World Weather Watch and Global Atmospheric Watch Programmes; and the Global Climate and Global Ocean Observing Systems). Already, IPY projects and organizational partners are developing plans for sustainable Arctic observing systems (including geophysical, ecological and social observations) and for circum-Antarctic Oocean observing systems.

Future researchers

The injection of additional funding during the IPY 2007-2008 period will stimulate new recruitment and training activities: several hundreds of graduate students, many tens of post-doctoral positions, perhaps even new senior researcher positions. Building this temporary enthusiasm into a sustained legacy involves three challenges. First, along with legacies of data and observational systems, a legacy of increased polar research funding must provide continued and enduring opportunities for recruitment and retention of new polar researchers. These new polar researchers must come from broad geographic and disciplinary backgrounds—science of the future, with polar science at the forefront, will be characterized by the integration of cultural and intellectual diversity. Finally, young researchers in IPY 2007-2008, of both genders and of many cultures, must establish their intellectual, vocational and collegial networks, to exchange ideas, share enthusiasm and develop shared visions and commitment, with a deliberate goal of planning and leading future global change research. The rapid growth of the Association of Polar Early Career Scientists during the IPY bodes well for the future of polar science and science generally.


The period 1 March 2007 to 1 March 2009 will be exciting and historic. International Polar Year 2007-2008 should significantly advance our ability to meet the major science challenges of the polar regions and generate rich legacies of data, capabilities and talent. IPY 2007-2008 and its connection to a general public, already fascinated by polar images and polar animals, represents science addressing crucial global questions of planetary well-being at a time when we humans begin to recognize the serious impacts of human behaviour. This global focus on frozen regions simultaneously provides a test of our ability to understand the planet, a warning of our impact on the planet and an opportunity to develop a new science paradigm-public partnership that will act for the benefit of the planet and humanity.


Allison, I., M. Béland, K. Alverson, R. Bell, D. Carlson, K. Danell, C. Ellis-Evans, E. Fahrbach, E. Fanta, Y. Fujii, G. Glaser, L. Goldfarb, G. Hovelsrud, J. Huber, V. Kotlyakov, I. Krupnik, J. Lopez-Martinez, T. Mohr, D. Qin, V. Rachold, C. Rapley, O. Rogne, E. Sarukhanian, C. Summerhayes, C. Xiao, 2007: The scope of science for the International Polar Year 2007-2008, WMO/TD-No.1364, 79 pp.

Lemke P., and co-authors, 2007: Changes in Cryosphere. In: Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis. Contributions of Working Group 1 to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [S. Solomon, D. Qin and others (eds.)], Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA, 43-46

Rapley C., R. Bell, I. Allison, R. Bindschadler, G. Casassa, S. Chown, G. Duhaime, V. Kotlyakov, M. Kuhn, O. Orheim, P.C. Prandey, H.K. Petersen, H. Shalke, W. Janoschek, E. Sarukhanian, Z. Zhang, 2004: A Framework for the International Polar Year 2007-2008, ICSU, 38 pp.


1 Ice, Ocean, Atmosphere and Climate Program, Australian Antarctic Division and Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems Cooperative Research Centre, Co-chair of IPY Joint Committee
2 Science and Technology Branch, Environment of Canada, Co-chair of IPY Joint Committee
3 Director, IPY International Programme Office
4 China Meteorological Administration, Chair of WMO Intercommission Task Group on IPY, member of IPY Joint Committee
5 Special adviser to the Secretary-General of WMO on IPY and ex officio member of IPY Joint Committee
6 Deputy Executive Director of ICSU and ex officio member of IPY Joint Committee

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