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Dry Valleys
Photo Credit: Joe Mastroianni
Two members of John Priscu's research team in 2004 carry water samples from Lake Bonney. As part of IPY, Priscu's science team will work in the McMurdo Dry Valleys well into April, studying what happens to the ecosystem in the growing cold and dark.

International Polar Year lights fire of discovery

What is the International Polar Year?

The simple answer is that the International Polar Year, or IPY, is an intensive, two-year study of the Arctic and Antarctic. It began March 2007 and runs until March 2009, which gives scientists two field seasons to conduct research.

But the IPY is much more. It’s about creating long-standing legacies of international research collaborations; capturing the world’s imagination in science and exploration; and inspiring future generations of scientists and engineers.

If it sounds familiar, perhaps you’ve heard of the International Geophysical Year (IGY), the model upon which the IPY was based. Fifty years ago, amid the climate of the Cold War, scientists from scores of nations banded together to probe and measure the globe like never before, emboldened by new technologies.

Tom Wagner, program manager for Earth Sciences in the Office of Polar Program (OPP) at the National Science Foundation (NSF), says IPY could not have come at a more opportune time.

“At this time in the world, anything that we can do that shows cooperation of people across national boundaries is critical,” explains Wagner, who also serves as the current science representative at McMurdo Station.

“The IGY had that spirit in 1957,” he adds, “and we have really rekindled that spirit in 2007, and all of the projects we’re supporting have major international components to them.”

IPY also comes at a critical juncture as the world wrestles with the challenges of global warming, according to Andrew Fountain, a member of the U.S. IPY National Committee, which represents the country in discussions with the international community of scientists on IPY projects.

“This is coming at an excellent time in the context of the whole global climate change discussion,” says Fountain, an NSF grantee who works on the McMurdo Dry Valleys Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) project. “The polar regions are becoming a highlight within that, and that’s a very good thing.”

Putting it together

Discussions among the international polar science community began in 2002 when The National Academies’ Polar Research Board (PRB), which doubles as the U.S. IPY National Committee, brought together a group of scientists to determine whether the IPY would be effective.

“We walked away [from that meeting] fairly convinced that it was a powerful thing to do, that our planet was changing and there were frontiers still impossible to reach [as] individual nations,” says Robin Bell, who has been at the forefront of U.S. IPY efforts and chairs the PRB.

“The only way to address the change at the frontiers was for nations to work together,” says Bell, one of the principal investigators on an IPY project to explore Antarctica’s Gamburtsev Province, home to a mysterious subglacial mountain range.

Those five years of planning passed quickly as the effort eventually involved more than 60 countries, hundreds of proposals and thousands of scientists. “It’s a combination of grass roots and getting buy-in from the international committee,” Bell says.

The national committee, while it set the stage for IPY, has no funding authority. The job to evaluate proposals and hand out U.S. grants falls to NSF and the OPP.

OPP carved out $10 million from existing core programs in 2006 to kick-start the effort, and NSF at large contributed an additional $5.35 million, according to budget statements on the agency’s Web site.

“It really convinced people that the agency was serious about doing new things in IPY, and they responded well by developing internationally cooperative projects that went well beyond the scope of the kind of international projects that we had seen proposed before,” notes Antarctic Sciences Division Director Scott Borg.

The following fiscal year, NSF and OPP committed to about $61.5 million, more than $47 million from OPP alone. About $30 million of that amount was entirely new funds, according to Borg.

“That committed NSF to a fairly large amount of money, and that allowed us to fund a lot of what we believe is going to be good science,” he says.

Good science

While the central theme of the IPY involves studying the polar regions in the context of climate change, the effort ranges across most disciplines and explores a number of scientific questions and themes.

John Priscu leads a science team that studies microbial diversity in the permanently ice-covered lakes in the McMurdo Dry Valleys as part of the McMurdo LTER. He and a number of colleagues will work into April, a couple of months after most people in the United States Antarctic Program (USAP) have left for home.

The scientists want to understand what happens to the organisms in the lakes as the light fades and the temperatures drop. Currently, the researchers can only hypothesize about what occurs during the eight months of the year when they’re not present.

The IPY offers an opportunity to fill in an incomplete picture of carbon production and use in the lakes, among other things, according to Priscu.

“I have been pushing since the ’80s to sample these lakes year-round,” he says.

Another IPY program that has many people in the USAP excited is POLENET, an ambitious project to create a network of GPS and seismic sensor sites around West Antarctica and the Transantarctic Mountains.

Led by Terry Wilson, with the Byrd Polar Research Center at Ohio State University, POLENET will help calculate the mass of the ice sheet. That will help scientists predict more accurately sea level changes as ice mass decreases.

The list of such sweeping science goals goes on. Bell’s project in Antarctica’s Gamburtsev Province, dubbed AGAP, includes several countries including China. It will survey one of the least-understood parts of the continent, and determine what role its subglacial mountain range may play in ice sheet formation.

“They’re basic discovery kinds of projects in central East Antarctica, which, so far, has had very scarce data collected to characterize the ice sheet and underlying lithosphere,” Borg says. (A complete list of the NSF-funded IPY projects can be found at the agency’s Web site.)

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