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Group of people in an auditorium.
Photo Credit: Portland State University
About 900 scientists, students and others from more than 30 nations took part in the biennial meeting of the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research in Portland, Ore., in July. It was the first time in 26 years that the nongovernmental organization met in the United States.

Changing with the times

SCAR meeting returns to U.S. for first time in 26 years

It’s been 26 years since the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR) External Non-U.S. government site had held one of its biannual meetings in the United States before July’s gathering of about 900 scientists, national program managers, students and others in Portland, Ore.

It was long overdue, according to outgoing SCAR President Mahlon “Chuck” Kennicutt II External Non-U.S. government site.

“I think this is a great time to demonstrate the strength of the U.S. program and how important it is in the international arena. Antarctic science, by its nature, is international,” said Kennicutt, a professor of oceanography at Texas A&M University External Non-U.S. government site and principal investigator on an ongoing project at the U.S. Antarctic Program’s McMurdo Station External U.S. government site to monitor human impacts.

SCAR is a nongovernmental body of the International Council for Science (ICSU) External Non-U.S. government site that traces its origins to the 1957-58 International Geophysical Year (IGY) External Non-U.S. government site, a global research campaign that involved more than 60 nations and even included scientific cooperation between Cold War rivals the United States and then-United Soviet Socialist Republic.

A major component of IGY was polar research, particularly in Antarctica. During a meeting in 1957, ICSU decided that there was need for an international organization to coordinate scientific activity in Antarctica — and the Special Committee on Antarctic Research was born, composed of the 12 nations actively engaged in research on and around the southernmost continent.

SCAR President Mahlon “Chuck” Kennicutt II
Photo Credit: Portland State University
SCAR President Mahlon “Chuck” Kennicutt II speaks during the opening plenary session on July 16, 2012.

In the 50-plus years since its founding, much has changed about SCAR aside from its name. The number of member nations involved has tripled to 36, and also includes nine ICSU scientific unions. In 2000, SCAR underwent a radical re-organization to revitalize what some felt had become an insular body that hadn’t changed with the times.

“There was a whole range of major changes recommended. SCAR scraped the old structure, and a totally new one created,” Kennicutt said.

But one thing hasn’t changed, he added. “The fundamental mission of SCAR is a as important today, if not more so, than it was during the IGY.”

That mission is two-fold: To coordinate and facilitate international research in Antarctic and the Southern Ocean, and to provide independent, authoritative scientific advice to the Antarctic Treaty System External Non-U.S. government site, which governs the management and protection of the region for peaceful purposes.

The importance of the Antarctic region to the rest of the planet — and the increasing pressures placed upon it from climate change and other human impacts such as tourism and commercial fishing — has grown in recent years.

“The mission is more important now than it was 50 years ago,” said Kennicutt, a co-author on a recent policy paper in the journal Science about the future conservation challenges facing Antarctica. [See related article — Growing pressure: Scientists warn of uncertain future for Antarctica from climate change, human activities.]

“SCAR sees its advisory role as more general than just the Antarctic Treaty and that is a change. Before Treaty issues were the sole focus for scientific advice, and that’s still 90 percent of what SCAR does for this part of its mission,” Kennicutt said, noting that SCAR has been sending representatives for ICSU to the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) External Non-U.S. government site, an intergovernmental body that provides scientific assessments on the risks associated with climate change.

The 2007 IPCC assessment report projected a sea-level rise of between 18 and 59 centimeters by century’s end, as the planet warmed. However, some criticized that report because it really only accounted for changes in the Arctic, largely ignoring Antarctica and the Southern Ocean that encircles the world’s coldest and driest continent.

A report released by SCAR several years agp called Antarctic Climate Change and the Environment (ACCE) pulled together research from more than 100 scientists from many countries to provide the first comprehensive state of the climate picture for the region. It suggested that the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, in particular, could contribute significantly more water to higher sea levels by 2100.

People look at photographs.
Photo Credit: Portland State University
It wasn't all about science at the SCAR conference. Attendees enjoy some of the images entered in a photo contest.
[See previous article — State of the Antarctic: New SCAR report shows continent undergoing major changes.]

“That report elevated SCAR’s climate science, as far as providing authoritative updates,” Kennicutt said. “The 2014 IPCC report will be very different from the polar perspective, but we’ll see when it comes out.”

SCAR also reprised its IGY role when planning began for the International Polar Year (IPY) 2007-08 External U.S. government site, which involved dozens of nations and thousands of scientists from around the world. Results from some of that research was presented during a four-day Open Science Conference External Non-U.S. government site, a major part of the two-week SCAR meeting, which was held concurrently with the Council of Managers of National Antarctic Programs (COMNAP) External Non-U.S. government site, an international organization that develops best practices for science support activities. More than 30 nationalities were represented.

“We’re just beginning to see the science and new knowledge developed by the IPY. … The effect is building, as far as scientific knowledge,” Kennicutt said.

“The IPY deeply influenced Antarctic and Southern Ocean science, not only from a knowledge standpoint, but it also provided the bases for the next generation of programs,” he added. “The idea was that IPY would be a step function and not a one-time bump-up in activity. To be a step momentum must be maintained even as the IPY money fades away.”

Part of hat responsibility will fall to incoming SCAR President Jerónimo López Martínez, who was elected by the national delegates during the Portland meeting. The delegates also approved the next generation of SCAR Scientific Research Programmes External Non-U.S. government site, which include State of the Antarctic Ecosystem (AntEco), Antarctic Thresholds — Ecosystem Resilience and Adaptation (AnT-ERA), Antarctic Climate Change in the 21st Century (AntClim21; formerly PACE), Past Antarctic Ice Sheet Dynamics (PAIS) and Solid Earth Responses and influences on Cryospheric Evolution (SERCE).

The next biennial SCAR meeting will be held in 2014 in New Zealand, followed by a 2016 gathering in Malaysia, which recently joined the Antarctic Treaty System.

The National Science Foundation External U.S. government site provided funding External U.S. government site for the 32nd annual SCAR and Open Science Conference through Portland State University External Non-U.S. government site.

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Curator: Peter Rejcek, Antarctic Support Contract | NSF Official: Winifred Reuning, Division of Polar Programs