One hundred and twenty-five years ago, Austrian explorer Karl Weyprecht called on scientists around the world to study the Earth's polar regions. Only through such concerted effort, believed Weyprecht, could problems of meteorology and geophysics be solved.

Weyprecht's enterprise has since become the International Polar Year, held every 50 years and involving thousands of scientists from more than 60 countries. The latest kicked off in March 2007 and will last until March 2009 — yes, it's two years long; keep reading to learn why — and it's now climate change that demands global solutions, with Antarctica and the Arctic hit first and hardest by Earth's rising temperatures. Thousands of researchers are conducting investigations that fall into six broad categories: atmosphere, ice, land, oceans, people and space.

Plenty caught up with John Farrell, executive director of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission, to talk about the IPY and its mission.

Q. Why does the International Polar Year last for two years?

A. Because of the asynchronicity of the seasons. Our Northern hemisphere's summer is dead winter in Antarctica. We want to make sure there's one continuous year of research in both poles.

Q. What's the focus of the research?

A. A wide array of subjects. One of the keys is understanding the circulation and biology of the Arctic Ocean. The cryosphere—the ice world, the sea ice that covers the Arctic Ocean —also gets a lot of attention. There was a lot of media attention last year because of a meltback of seasonal sea ice. The extent of the sea ice was smaller than it's ever been since we started observing with satellites.

There's a focus on the marine mammal life—walruses, seals, gray whales, bowhead whales, and polar bears—and on land, including the permafrost, or permanently frozen ground. There's a focus on hydrology—the study of water flow—in anticipation that river flows will increase as the climate warms. There's focus on trees and forests moving into more northerly regions than they previously occupied.

Q. What are the big findings so far?

A. One of the most intriguing findings concerns the rapid and extensive decline in sea ice cover observed last summer. It's anticipated that it may be a minimum sea ice year this year as well. That may indicate that we can conduct shipping in the Arctic. And if the sea ice doesn't freeze to shore, waves will erode the coastal areas, jeopardizing some of the villages. Sea ice is also the base from which polar bears, walruses, and seals make their living; there's a potential to jeopardize the wellbeing and ecology of those animals.

Q. Is there a sense that researchers are studying something that could disappear soon?

A. Certainly there's a sense of urgency. The Arctic is changing faster than other environments. The impacts of global warming seem to be strongest in the polar regions. You might see a one-degree change in the tropics, but that's significantly amplified in the higher latitudes.

There are a variety of reasons for that. On involves positive feedbacks: If you have ice covering the ocean, the ice is white, and when the sun hits that ice, it bounces off and reflects the solar radiation back into space. But as the Earth warms and sea ice recedes and exposes the ocean, sunlight hits the water, which is darker and absorbs the heat.

Q. Aside from the poles’ precarious condition, what's the difference between this IPY and the three earlier ones?

A. Back then we didn't have the computational power. Technological advances let us do science we couldn't have envisioned 50 years ago. There are all kinds of tools—computers, satellites, observing devices—that enable us to look at different things over a broader scope than we could before.

There are also more nations participating. Only eight nations have land in the Arctic, but many more are participating. And there's a focus on science beyond just the physical. There's also a focus on indigenous peoples.

Q. What about them?

A. The Arctic Research Commission is conducting research into indigenous languages, cultures, and identities. They're facing challenging times: rapid changes in environment, and then, culturally, a lot of exposure to non-traditional influences, which makes it difficult for them to pass on the languages. As languages are lost, it's difficult to pass on certain cultural elements.

There's also an emphasis on research into the health of Arctic residents. Many eat caribou, reindeer, and fish that bioaccumulate certain pollutants in their flesh and fat, so eating them can be harmful.

Q. Do you get the support you need to conduct the research?

A. If you ask scientists whether they're getting all the money they need, it's a rare one who says yes. But in the United States, though there's been some money for the International Polar Year, it's not as much as Canada put in—and they've got a population smaller than California’s. They do have more territory than we do in the Arctic, so maybe that's the explanation. Or maybe it's because we have other national research priorities right now. But it'd be good to see more money put to Arctic research.

Q. Polar regions seem so foreign to everyday experience, especially in a warming world. How do you get people to care about what happens there?

A. Focusing on walruses and polar bears helps. It's much more interesting to look at cute polar bears than phytoplankton. And there's a lot of ice tied up on the continents. As it melts, it raises sea levels globally. If you live in Bangladesh or Washington, D.C., that will have an impact. If you take all the ice in Greenland and melt it, you'll raise sea level by 21 feet globally. Look at a map of the world where sea level rises by one meter: You see huge metropolitan regions underwater. And that's just three feet.

Story by Brandon Keim. This article originally appeared in Plenty in April 2008.

Copyright Environ Press 2008

Uncovering mysteries at Earth’s poles
Arctic researcher John Farrell gives an insider's view of the International Polar Year