International Polar Year Reports Widespread Global Warming

GENEVA, Switzerland, February 25, 2009 (ENS) – New evidence of the far-reaching effects of global warming in the polar regions has emerged from the scientific explorations of International Polar Year 2007-2008. Snow and ice are declining in both polar regions, affecting human livelihoods as well as local plant and animal life in the Arctic, as well as global ocean and atmospheric circulation and sea level.

The IPY findings are reported in “State of Polar Research,” released today by the World Meteorological Organization and the International Council for Science.

At a time in which the global environment is changing faster than ever in human history, IPY science has increased understanding of pollutant transport, species’ evolution, and storm formation and climate change, among many other areas.

The IPY findings result from more than 160 endorsed science projects assembled from researchers in more than 60 countries.

The U.S. Antarctic Program’s South Pole Traverse team identifies and analyzes crevasses in an area known as the Shear Zone. November 2008. (Photo by Paul Thur courtesy National Science Foundation)

Launched in March 2007, the IPY covers a two-year period to March 2009 to allow for observations during the alternate seasons in both polar regions.

A joint project of the World Meteorological Organization and the International Council for Science, IPY spearheaded efforts to better monitor and understand the Arctic and Antarctic regions, with international funding support of about US$ 1.2 billion over the two-year period.

“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.”

Catherine Bréchignac, president of ICSU, said, “The planning for IPY set ambitious goals that have been achieved, and even exceeded, thanks to the tireless efforts, enthusiasm, and imagination of thousands of scientists, working with teachers, artists, and many other collaborators.”

Taking aerial pictures at the southern coast of Samoylov Island within the Lena Delta close to the Laptev Sea in the Siberian Arctic. Summer 2008. (Photo courtesy Alfred-Wegener Institut)

It now appears clear that the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets are losing mass, contributing to sea level rise. Warming in the Antarctic is much more widespread than it was thought prior to the IPY, and it now appears that the rate of ice loss from Greenland is increasing.

Researchers also found that in the Arctic, during the summers of 2007 and 2008, the minimum extent of year-round sea ice decreased to its lowest level since satellite records began 30 years ago. IPY expeditions recorded an unprecedented rate of sea-ice drift in the Arctic as well. Due to global warming, the types and extent of vegetation in the Arctic shifted, affecting grazing animals and hunting.

Other evidence for global warming comes from IPY research vessels that have confirmed warming in the Southern Ocean above the global average. A freshening of the bottom water near Antarctica is consistent with increased ice melt from Antarctica and could affect ocean circulation. Global warming is thus affecting Antarctica in ways not previously identified.

IPY research has also identified large pools of carbon stored as methane in permafrost. Thawing permafrost threatens to destabilize the stored greenhouse gas and send it into the atmosphere. IPY researchers along the Siberian coast observed substantial emissions of methane from ocean sediments.

New Zealand scientist measures the depth of Antarctic coastal sea ice. (Photo courtesy University of Otago)

In the area of biodiversity, surveys of the Southern Ocean have uncovered a rich, colorful and complex range of life. Some species appear to be migrating poleward in response to global warming.

IPY has also given atmospheric research new insight. Researchers have discovered that North Atlantic storms are major sources of heat and moisture for the polar regions. Understanding these mechanisms will improve forecasts of the path and intensity of storms.

Studies of the ozone hole have benefited from IPY research, 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.

Many Arctic residents, including indigenous communities, participated in IPY’s projects. Over 30 of these projects addressed Arctic social and human science issues, including food security, pollution, and other health issues, and will bring new understanding to addressing these pressing challenges.

Inger Marie Gaup Eira prepares for field work on EALAT, the Reindeer Herders Vulnerability Network Study, examining reindeer pastoralism in view of climate change. February 14, 2009.

“IPY has been the catalyst for the development and strengthening of community monitoring networks across the North” said David Carlson, director of the IPY International Programme Office. “These networks stimulate the information flow among communities and back and forth from science to communities.”

IPY leaves as its legacy enhanced observational capacity, stronger links across disciplines and communities, and an energized new generation of polar researchers.

“The work begun by IPY must continue,” said Jarraud. “Internationally coordinated action related to the polar regions will still be needed in the next decades,” he said.

Bréchignac concurs, “This IPY has further strengthened the ICSU-WMO relationship on polar research coordination, and we must continue to assist the scientific community in its quest to understand and predict polar change and its global manifestations at this critical time.”

The “State of Polar Research” document also recommends priorities for future action to ensure that society is best informed about ongoing polar change and its likely future evolution and global impacts. A major IPY science conference will take place in Oslo in June 2010.

Click here [] to view the “State of Polar Research” report.

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