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Last Updated: Friday, 23 February 2007, 11:15 GMT
Poles 'vital for climate science'
Iceberg (Getty Images)
Melting ice sheets are directly linked to sea level rises, scientists say
Research in the polar regions has never been more important in the quest to understand impacts of climate change, according to the UK's science minister.

Urgent scientific effort in Antarctica was needed to assess the extent of global warming, Malcolm Wicks observed.

He made the comments during a visit to the British Antarctic Survey's (BAS) research station at Rothera.

Next week marks the start of the International Polar Year, involving scientists from more than 60 nations.

Mr Wicks, the UK's Science and Innovation Minister, is spending six days at the BAS base to see at first hand the research being undertaken by scientists in the region.

Malcolm Wicks (left) examining an ice core sample (Image: DTI)
The changes now taking place are happening at quite a rapid rate
Malcolm Wicks,
UK Science Minister

"Climate change has to be the world's number one concern for the foreseeable future in this century," he told BBC News.

"Because of the importance of this region, one can do absolutely vital scientific work on land and in the oceans."

He added that he was also keen to let the public know that UK scientists were "among the best in the world".

"The research going on here, by a whole range of scientists, is world class," he said.

During his time with the team, Mr Wicks is observing a range of research, including ice core drilling and biodiversity studies.

"This is giving us vital information about how the planet might be changing," he added.

"The world changes and the climate varies from epoch to epoch, but the changes now taking place are happening at quite a rapid rate."

'Timely' visit

BAS director Chris Rapley said the minister's visit to the station was timely.

"In many respects the Antarctic, although it is geographically distant, is in everyone's backyard," he told BBC News.

"A warmer world always results in less ice and higher sea levels."

Map of Rothera (BBC)
Professor Rapley said a report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), published at the beginning of February, showed that human activity was "very likely" to be causing climate change.

But he added that the report also highlighted areas where a number of uncertainties remained.

"One of those uncertainties is associated with the question of how quickly and how much ice sheets will melt.

"So future expenditure on protecting London, New York and major cities around the world against sea level rise can only be known when we better understand how the ice sheets will respond to a warmer world.

"The work we are doing down here to try and understand ice dynamics is vital to answering that very relevant question," Professor Rapley explained.

Funding row

BAS runs nine research programmes in the Antarctic, operating five research stations, two ships and five aircraft.

To carry out its work, BAS receives an annual budget of 40m ($80m) from the Natural Environment Research Council.

On Wednesday, a number of leading UK scientists voiced their concern that Mr Wicks' Department for Trade and Industry is taking back 68m ($136m) from UK research councils.

Rothera research station (Image: BAS)
The Rothera research station is home to up to 130 scientists
Mr Wicks said the action was necessary because of ongoing costs related to the loss of the Rover car company and the rescue package put together for British Energy.

"It has meant that, only properly, the Treasury has said that we have got to make some economies," he explained.

"We did not do this lightly, but there are some surpluses at the end of the financial year and we are going to use that to help the overall finances of the DTI.

"It is regrettable, but it is something that we have to do."

But he added: "This is a hiccup which is going to create some problems. But it should not interfere with the long-term position that this government is committed to British science and is funding it very well indeed."

The minister's visit to Antarctica came ahead of next week's launch of International Polar Year (IPY).

IPY will bring together thousands of scientists from more than 60 countries, working on more than 200 research projects.

Starting on 1 March, the programme actually runs for two years in order to allow equal coverage of both the Arctic and the Antarctic.

The launch of the UK's 24-month research programme will be held in central London on Monday, while Paris will host an event to unveil the international programme next Thursday.

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