Monday, March 12, 2007

International Polar Year 2007-2008 - Why It's So Important

Whether or not I am allowed* to join the International Polar Year (IPY) scientists on a trip to the North or South Pole, I am finding this project very exciting and incredibly important.

It is so big and so complex that it will be difficult for me to convey to you what this project is about in a few short paragraphs. Please bear with me as I try to impart my enthusiasm for IPY in a few more paragraphs than usual.

Because my excitement is a result of listening to the interview of two IPY scientists on National Public Radio on March 2, I’m going to primarily focus on what they said.

They are:

1. Dr. Mary Albert, (photo on left) past chair of the U.S. National Committee for the International Polar Year [hereafter IPY], senior research engineer at the U.S. Army’s Cold Region Research and Engineering Lab, and professor of engineering at Dartmouth;

2. Dr. Jody Deming, (photo on right) a member of the U.S. National Committee for the IPY and professor of biology, oceanography and astrobiology at the University of Washington.

Dr. Albert explained the goals of IPY:

1. To develop a better understanding of how the global climate system works and how it works in the whole planet system
2. To bring out fundamental discoveries in many research areas, including genomics in biology, polar biology, adaptation to change;and to look at the affects of pollution, climate change impact on disease, and circumpolar infectious disease surveillance.
3. To spark growth and education, and inspire the next generation of scientists, engineers and physicians.

Dr. Deming focused on the ice: ” The ice determines so much about what happens in the Arctic Ocean…. ice determines not only weather patterns and how the ocean flows, but how life exists in that ocean, how ecosystems are structured….it’s an opportunity to study the limits of life on our planet….as climate changes - and so rapidly in the Arctic – [it’s an opportunity to study] the types of genetic systems that we may lose the chance to learn about as we lose the ice where they live.

The host of the show, Ira Flatow, asked Dr. Deming, “What genes are in the ice?

She responded, “…most of them are from microbial organisms, …that we can’t love in the same way that we love polar bears but that we should be quite interested in because they’ve evolved for a long time on this planet…. We could take advantage of those genes in human health perspectives, for example. Some of these little microbes, they coat themselves up with essentially mucus to protect themselves from the severe cold. The genes that produce those compounds – those compounds themselves could be very useful in health initiatives…. bone healing that can be facilitated by these kinds of mucoid compounds…. The question is, can they survive in the ocean as it warms up?”

Ira also talked with Will Steger, a polar explorer for thirty years, who called in from Baffin Island on his 1,200 mile trip through arctic Canada. The purpose of his trip is to increase awareness of climate change. Steger said that he had previously crossed the Larsen A and B ice shelves, and “These are totally disintegrated now.” Steger had four Inuit hunters with him, who observed changes that they had never seen before, such as a running stream that previously had always been frozen.

For anyone as interested in this as I am, the whole interview can be heard here and the transcript ordered here.

IPY is so big, involving over 200 projects conducted by thousands of scientists from over 60 nations, that it will take me many hours to really get a handle on it. At this
link, Chart v. 4.4 presents in honeycomb fashion all of the projects related to IPY. An associated spreadsheet provides the full project names and lead persons for each proposal.
*See my March 10 post.

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