Editorial: Polar changes

Published in The Hindu on March 16, 2009

The fourth International Polar Year, which began in March 2007 and ends this March, is another example of countries coming together to contribute funds and expertise to basic research. Many countries have been independently studying the Poles. But a collaborative effort has become necessary as understanding the various changes brought about by climate change is beyond the capabilities of any single country. About 50,000 scientists from 63 countries have joined hands to examine the physical, chemical, and biological changes taking place at the poles and to understand the effects of climate change. It has emerged as the largest international programme of planetary research in the last 50 years. The latest IPY, which includes cross-disciplinary studies, has been substantially different from large-scale polar research initiatives of the past. Unlike during the last International Polar Year of 1957-58, when studying the poles was considered an exotic field, this time the effects of climate change have triggered active participation. India has a clear advantage as it has been actively involved in studying the Antarctic since 1983, long before the effects of climate change became apparent. It has completed 27 expeditions after it set up a permanent station in that icy continent. The research station India established last year in the Arctic — it was the 11th country to do so — will give it more leverage to study the poles.

As the International Polar Year — which runs for two years because that is the time needed to study six-month winters and six-month summers in the Arctic and the Antarctic — comes to an end, it is clear that interpreting and analysing the voluminous data generated will take a long while. Understanding how physical, biological, and chemical changes at the poles have affected humanity, directly and indirectly, what changes might occur in future, and what their combined effects might be will also pose a major challenge to scientists. Initial findings, such as those revealing a significantly greater warming of the Antarctic than previously estimated and the unprecedented rate of ice drift across the Arctic, constitute powerful evidence of the large-scale damage done by climate change. It is important to ensure that the wealth of data generated during the International Polar Year is freely accessible to scientists round the world, and the good news is that there has been no opposition to such data sharing. According to a recently released ‘State of Polar Research’ report, increased co-ordination between national and international data systems is helping to lay the foundation for data sharing.