- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 4, 2007

PARIS

Are we really heading for an ice-free Arctic? More than 50,000 researchers hope to find an answer during a major study of how global warming and other phenomena are changing the coldest parts of the Earth — and what that means for the rest of it.

Scientists formally kicked off the International Polar Year on Thursday, the biggest such project in 50 years. It is unifying researchers from 63 nations in 228 studies to monitor the health of the polar regions, using icebreakers, satellites and submarines. The project ends in March 2009.

Schoolchildren in Oslo, many with signs that said “Give us back winter” or “We want snow,” built snowmen on the City Hall square to mark last week’s meeting.

The director of the Norwegian Polar Institute, Kim Holmen, described seeing glaciers melt at an accelerated rate in recent years at his Arctic outpost of Ny-Alesund. The polar year is important because it is “pooling the resources of many countries in a coordinated effort to solve a major scientific problem of our time,” he said by telephone.

Global warming “is the most important challenge we face in this century,” Prince Albert II of Monaco told the opening session in Paris. “The hour is no longer for skepticism. It is time to act and act urgently.”

He noted an authoritative report issued last month by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that said global warming is unequivocal, very likely human-caused and will last for centuries.

A scientist on the panel warned that the world could be heading for an ice-free Arctic, a proposition backed up by Ian Allison, a co-chairman of the International Polar Year committee and researcher with the Australian Government Antarctic Commission.

“The projections are that ice in the Arctic will disappear in the summer months. There will no longer be perennial ice … sometime within the next century,” he said.

“This will have enormous consequences” on the 4 million people living in polar regions — and well beyond, he said, as the melting ice disrupts ecosystems all the way to the equator.

Russian geographer Vladimir Kotlyakov, who has studied polar regions for 50 years and is a leading figure in the polar year project, was skeptical of the predictions of an ice-free Arctic, but he did not deny climate changes are already affecting Russia.

“We’ll have to change our agriculture, our industry, even our mentality as a frozen country,” he told participants at the Paris event.

In stressing the global impact of the polar study, Michel Jarraud of the U.N. World Meteorological Organization said a major breakthrough of the last International Polar Year, in 1957-1958, came from scientists’ understanding of the tropics and their weather systems.

This time, the scientists employ much better technology, especially satellites to study polar regions, known as the cryosphere. They will study everything from the effect of solar radiation on the polar atmosphere to the exotic marine life swimming beneath the Antarctic ice.

The polar year is being sponsored by the World Meteorological Organization and the International Council for Science. About $1.5 billion has been earmarked for the year’s projects by various national exploration agencies, but most of the money comes from existing polar-research budgets.

In classrooms around the world, teachers conducted ice-related activities and experiments last week to call attention to the project, organizers said.

Two leading researchers formally began the project at the Palace of Discovery museum in Paris by slicing into an enormous cake made to look like a glacier, topped with meringue and caramelized “icicles.”

At the Oslo event, snowball skirmishes between children erupted. “Like me, I’m sure you want it to be possible to ski … in the future,” said Norwegian Crown Prince Haakon.

Besides providing a more-complete picture of the impact of global warming, the cooperation will help try to quantify the amount of freshwater leaking from under ice sheets in Antarctica.

Other projects include the installation of an Arctic Ocean monitoring system, described as an early-warning system for climate change, and a census of deep-sea creatures that populate the bottom of Antarctica’s Southern Ocean.

The Antarctic’s lakes and mountains — some trapped under about 3 miles of ice for more than 35 million years — will be sounded. Using telescopes, balloons and spacecraft, scientists at the poles will investigate plasma and magnetic fields kicked up by the sun. Anthropologists plan to study the culture and politics of some of the Arctic’s 4 million inhabitants.

AP writer Doug Mellgren in Oslo contributed to this report.


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