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Researchers take poles' temperature as International Polar Year gets under way

3/1/2007

LONDON — More than 50,000 scientists from 63 nations turned
their attention to the world's poles Monday to measure the effects
of climate change, using icebreakers, satellites and submarines to
study everything from the effect of solar radiation on the polar
atmosphere to the exotic marine life swimming beneath the Antarctic
ice.

The International Polar Year unifies 228 research projects under
a single umbrella, with the aim of monitoring the health of the
Earth's polar regions and gauging the impact of global warming.

The
largest international research program in 50 years, the project
officially begins Thursday and ends in March 2009 — allowing for a
full cycle of polar seasons, which span two calendar years.

``Global warming is the most challenging problem that our
civilization has faced,'' Britain's chief scientific adviser, Sir
David King, said in a video played before the event's launch. He
called the melting of polar ice ``the canary in the coal mine for
global warming.''

The polar year is being sponsored by the U.N.'s World
Meteorological Organization and the International Council for
Science. About $1.5 billion has been earmarked for the year's
projects by various national exploration agencies, but most of the
money comes from existing polar research budgets.

While the increase in resources available to explorers is
modest, British scientists said the project had the potential to
yield a complete picture of the threat facing the polar world —
known to scientists as the cryosphere.

``What's different this year is not so much the volume of
research funding, but more the coordination of research,'' said
Eric Wolff, a British Antarctic survey scientist.

Besides yielding a more complete picture of the impact of global
warming, the cooperation will help tackle polar science's most
vexing problems, such as the challenge of trying to quantify the
amount of fresh water leaking out from underneath ice sheets in
Antarctica.

The melting — which is distinct from the break up of
glaciers — has alarmed climate scientists because it takes place
beneath the ice and is difficult to measure.

Wolff said that estimates of the leakage taken from ships off
the coast of the continent offered an incomplete picture of the
problem because currents could draw the melt to other areas.

``It's only by getting all the ships that you have available to
do the same thing at the same time that you get a snapshot of the
whole Antarctic,'' Wolff said.

Other projects include the installation of an Arctic Ocean
monitoring system, described as an early-warning system for climate
change, and a census of the deep-sea creatures which populate the
bottom of Antarctica's Southern Ocean.

Few aspects of the cryosphere will escape scrutiny. The
Antarctic's lakes and mountains — some trapped under about three
miles of ice for more than 35 million years — will be sounded.

Using telescopes, balloons and spacecraft, scientists at the poles
will investigate plasma and magnetic fields kicked up by the sun —
the dry, clear polar air is ideal for astronomy. Anthropologists
are also planning to study the culture and politics of some of the
Arctic's 4 million inhabitants.

Although each project has its own scope, almost all touch in
some way on the fear that the environment being studied might
someday melt away. At the year's launch, it was clear what
scientists expected to find amid the ice and snow.

``We are now on an unsustainable path,'' said Corinne Le Quere,
a professor at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England.
``By seeing the changes as they occur in the region where they will
be occurring the fastest, the International Polar Year will provide
blinding evidence of the human impact on this planet.''