By Mark Kinver
Science and nature reporter, BBC News
The largest polar research programme for 50 years gets under way this week.
The speed at which ice-sheets are melting is one of the projects
International Polar Year (IPY) will see thousands of scientists, from more than 60 nations, working together on 220 projects at high latitudes.
Scientists hope to improve their understanding of how changes to the polar regions affect the planet.
IPY will be officially launched in Paris on 1 March, but the UK's programme, involving 65 institutions, was unveiled on Monday in London.
IPY actually runs for two years in order to allow equal coverage of both the Arctic and the Antarctic.
It is organised by the International Council for Science (ICSU) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO).
There have been three previous IPYs - held in 1882-83, 1932-33 and 1957-58 - each of which led to scientists gaining a much better knowledge of the remote regions.
The UK research programme was unveiled at a ceremony, attended by the Princess Royal, at the Royal Society in central London.
Cynan Ellis-Evans, head of the UK's national committee, said much of the research that will carried out during the next two years would be part of existing projects.
"But the difference with IPY is that... these large numbers of nations are going to be working together," Dr Ellis-Evans explained.
One example, he said, was a project called the Census of Antarctic Marine Life (CAML). The project will investigate the distribution and abundance of marine biodiversity in the region.
It involves scientists from 18 countries, and aims to provide a benchmark against which future changes, including climatic shifts, can be measured.
"This activity would never have been possible outside the IPY," he added.
Martin Siegert, who is leading a UK team that will explore Lake Ellsworth, a subglacial lake 2km beneath the Antarctic ice, explained why the IPY was so important to scientists.
"Fifty years ago, the third International Polar Year happened. The reason for that period of activity was because we realised that we did not know anything about Antarctica," the professor of geoscience at the University of Edinburgh told reporters.
"The situation has actually not changed too much - we still know very little about Antarctica and the Arctic. But the big difference is that we now know the regions are very important.
"So exploration is very much on the agenda for this IPY," Professor Siegert revealed.
There are six major research themes within the programme:
- determine the current environmental status of the polar regions
- quantify past and present environmental and social changes, and improve future projections
- understand links between the poles and the rest of the planet
- investigate the frontiers of science in the regions
- use the polar areas to develop and enhance observation of the Earth's interior and of space
- explore the cultural, historical and social aspects of circumpolar human communities
One of the institutes that will be playing a leading role in IPY is the British Antarctic Survey (BAS).
Chris Rapley, BAS director, said that growing awareness of the threats posed by changes to the climate made the 24-month programme timely.
"In many respects the Antarctic, although it is geographically distant, is in everyone's backyard," he said.
"A warmer world always results in less ice and higher sea levels."
One area of research involved trying to understand how much and how fast ice-sheets would melt as temperatures rose, Professor Rapley explained.
"The palaeo-evidence has been very thin and patchy, because when the major blocks of ice have collapsed in the past, they have not left much evidence of how quickly it happened.
"International Polar Year will allow us to marshal the resources of all nations that are capable of addressing those issues in an intensive way, and speed up delivery of the answers."
The UK's Science and Innovation Minister, Malcolm Wicks, last week visited the BAS research station at Rothera to see first-hand the work being carried out by scientists.
"The significance of the International Polar Year is that it brings together some of the globe's best scientists to work together on a number of different projects," he said.
"In terms of scientific breakthroughs and the accumulation of knowledge of this vital area, I think the year is going to be a very significant one."
Ahead of the IPY's launch, a team of researchers on the CAML project completed a 10-week census of marine life in a near-pristine stretch of Antarctic seabed.
Previously encased by ice for several thousands of years, parts of the area became accessible only five years ago, following the collapse of the Larsen B ice-shelf.
The lack of Arctic summer sea ice threatens polar bears' survival
The team, led by researchers from the Alfred Wegener Institute, Germany, found a number of likely new species, and gained an insight into the dynamics of the polar ecology.
"What we learned from the... expedition is the tip of an iceberg, so to speak," said team leader Michael Stoddart.
"Insights from this and CAML's upcoming International Polar Year voyages will shed light on how climate variations affect ice-affiliated species living in this region."