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Last Updated: Wednesday, 15 March 2006, 17:44 GMT
Huge polar initiative announced
By Rebecca Morelle
BBC News science reporter

Antarctica (British Antarctic Survey)
The 1957 initiative provided a wealth of information
Next year, thousands of scientists from around the world will begin the most intensive period of research on the polar regions in half a century.

International Polar Year (IPY) aims to provide a legacy of research into key environmental issues facing the Earth.

Those involved hope its progress will generate as much public interest as the 1969 Moon landings.

The last such initiative, in 1957, provided the foundation for much of the polar science knowledge we have today.

I think we have chance to build a very special programme; and there will some be dazzling science
David Carlson
"Those old enough to remember will recall that the International Geophysical Year was not only a huge scientific enterprise with fantastically important outcomes, both scientific and geopolitical, but it also had huge penetration into the public consciousness," said Professor Chris Rapley, director of the British Antarctic Survey, which is involved in IPY.

The International Geophysical Year saw the first satellite, Sputnik, launched into space, established the thickness of the Antarctic ice sheet, and paved the way for the Antarctic Treaty, designating Antarctica a zone for peace and science.

'Global impact'

Fifty years on, IPY hopes to build on this success.

Beginning in March 2007, it will involve over 50,000 participants, including scientists spanning many different disciplines, from more than 60 countries across the globe.

Ice core (British Antarctic Survey)
Research programmes will include collecting more ice cores
Professor Rapley described it as an "intensive burst" of scientific research and observations focusing on the Earth's polar regions.

Dr David Carlson, IPY's programme director, said the polar regions were an essential area on which to focus international science.

"If you want to understand the global carbon cycle, the global water cycle, the global weather cycle, or global economics, it requires an understanding of polar regions," he said.

"It's a polar science, but it has a global impact."

There will be hundreds of research projects running throughout the year looking at a diverse range of issues.

Indigenous communities

Proposals include new research into ice cores to further knowledge of the Earth's climate one million years ago; mapping and modelling of permafrost thawing; tracking reindeer herds as the climate alters; looking at oil and gas development; and satellite observations.

IPY will also focus on indigenous communities.

"These are our Northern neighbours," said Dr Carlson. "They are facing change very quickly, and it's inherent that we embrace and understand their view of these changes."

There will also be activities for the public to participate in, including exhibitions, films, blogs and podcasts. The team hopes to attain the same level of public interest in the programme as the Moon landings.

IPY is sponsored by the International Council of Science and the World Meteorological Organization. It estimated cost is about 2.5-3bn euros (1.5-2bn), which will be spread across the countries taking part.

"We are addressing crucial issues at a critical time. I think we have the chance to build a very special programme; and there will be some dazzling science," said Dr Carlson.

Professor Rapley added: "Although this an intensive burst, we want to leave a legacy of new knowledge, new networks, new enthusiasm, new systems, and new understanding about the Polar Regions."

To ensure that researchers get the opportunity to work in both polar regions or work summer and winter if they wish, the polar year will actually run from March 2007 to March 2009.

Barnes Glacier, Ross Island.  Image: Glaciers Online/Michael Hambrey
A little under 70% of the world's fresh water is locked up in ice

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