Thousands of scientists from 63 countries are joining forces to make a detailed study of the Earth’s polar regions, where climate change is having a dramatic impact on ice formations that have been stable for millennia.
International Polar Year (IPY), which will actually run over two years, will include research to monitor globally important changes such as the loss of sea ice in the Arctic and of ice shelves and ice sheets in the Antarctic.
“Global warming is the most challenging problem our society has ever had to face up to. Ice is the canary in the coal mine of global warming,” Sir David King, the Government’s chief scientist, said yesterday.
Britain’s effort will be spearheaded by the British Antarctic Survey in Cambridge, which is involved in 45 IPY projects, and supported by 65 other British institutions, including 40 universities, research council institutes, government departments, museums and science centres.
“The change of phase from snow and ice to water is the biggest tipping point in the Earth’s system and so, although the IPY covers a huge range of science, for me the big issue is climate change and the impact that it’s having here,” Professor Chris Rapley, the director of the British Antarctic Survey, said.
“So, over the next two years, I’m looking forward to major progress on key issues, such as ‘How are the ice sheets responding?’ and the trillion dollar question from the point of view of sea-level rise, ‘How much, how quickly?’,” he said.
A report by the Intergovernmental Panel in Climate Change said the Arctic was one of the fastest-warming regions of the world and summer sea ice in the northern hemisphere could disappear by the end of the century.
Meanwhile, parts of Antarctica – notably the Antarctic peninsula – have become significantly warmer, leading to the disintegration of ice shelves, large bodies of floating sea ice that are connected to the mainland. The fear is that the ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica, which have built up on land over thousands of years, will start to melt, causing global sea levels to rise.
“Parts of the ice sheets are responding to warming rather more quickly than glaciologists had thought,” Professor Rapley said. “In parts of the Antarctic, there’s been a significant and sustained acceleration. The trouble is we’ve never seen a major ice sheet collapse before.
“IPY is much more than climate change. It’s got everything from astronomy on the high plateaux of the Antarctic, through plate tectonics, to social sciences and the welfare of the northern indigenous peoples,” Professor Rapley said.
The Antarctic ice sheet is up to 3 miles thick in places and it holds 90 per cent of the world’s fresh water.
It is also crucial to the circulation of the world’s ocean currents and therefore to planetary air circulation.
In the Arctic, the problems of melting ice will involve the 4 million people who live in the region. Global warming is already reducing the area of ocean ice by 3 per cent every decade.
Independent / UK