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International Polar Year Oslo Science Conference:

IPY generates a torrent of research

The International Polar Year (IPY) 2007-2008 was officially concluded about one year ago. In practice, though, the activities are just now wrapping up with the largest polar conference ever, to be held in Oslo on 8-12 June. The researchers' productivity and production have been enormous.

Olav Orheim has been inundated with fascinating research results for presentation at the large-scale polar research conference in Oslo. Photo: Jon Solberg Olav Orheim has been inundated with fascinating research results for presentation at the large-scale polar research conference in Oslo. (Photo: Jon Solberg) The Norwegian IPY secretariat, headed by Olav Orheim, has received abstracts for an amazing 2,500 presentations of activities and early results for the conference. More than 2,000 polar researchers from 50 countries are on the list of participants, and over 50 different presentations will be held in certain research areas – such as the connection between melting glaciers and rising sea levels.

“The conference is a success before it has even begun,” declares Mr Orheim.

Expensive and complex

Polar research is both expensive and complex. When several countries join forces every 50 years to arrange the International Polar Year, the research community has a chance to demonstrate how a large-scale international collaboration can make major strides in a research field in just two to three years.

“Polar research involves challenges that cannot be compared with any other field. Much of the research is conducted in areas completely lacking in infrastructure. There are no roads or hotels where researchers can stay. As a result, it is crucial to utilise resources effectively through international cooperation,” says Mr Orheim.

The fact that the world’s fourth IPY coincided with the first decade of the 21st century could not have been more advantageous. Russia, which controls nearly half of the Arctic, was finally a full-fledged participant again after many difficult years. Moreover, this extraordinary research effort was absolutely vital because the need for more knowledge about the polar areas has never been greater.

14 researchers took part in the Norwegian Antarctica Expedition 1956 - 1960. Photo: John Snuggerud, Norwegian Polar Institute 14 researchers took part in the Norwegian Antarctica Expedition 1956 - 1960. (Photo: John Snuggerud, Norwegian Polar Institute)

Antarctica – a white speck on the map

When the previous IPY was held in 1957-1958, Antarctica was still just a white speck on the map. For Norway it was important to chart the vast areas of Queen Maud’s Land as well as to send a political signal about the country’s presence on the continent.

The Antarctic research conducted under the IPY umbrella in 2007 had a totally different and much larger knowledge base to build on, according to Mr Orheim.

Arctic research and climate trends

While knowledge about the Antarctic is in high demand, learning more about the Arctic Ocean has become critical in recent years. Never before has so little ice been measured in the Arctic in the month of March as this year. What knowledge can Arctic research produce about climate trends?

Polar research “A great deal of new, exciting knowledge in this area will be presented during the Oslo conference,” says Mr Orheim. “Thanks to the outstanding efforts of many researchers, for the first time we have been able to measure all the water that flows in and out of the Arctic Ocean. We can now quantify the mechanisms that affect the climate in both the Arctic and the Antarctic which in turn will lead to more reliable weather forecasts. This is especially crucial in the northern areas.”

However, polar researchers by no means agree on everything, admits Mr Orheim, who expects disagreement on several of the climate conclusions to be presented.

Human dimension

This time IPY has also included a human dimension. For example, researchers have studied how the indigenous communities in the Arctic may be affected by climate change and how the pollutants that accumulate in the Arctic may affect humans and animals.

Large volume of data – more research needed

During the past three years of international cooperation on polar research, enough basic data has been collected to keep researchers busy for years to come. A large volume of data from the detailed measurements taken will surely be used and reused many times.

When the head of the IPY secretariat in Norway was asked to identify one research area where much remains undone, he pointed in particular to knowledge about feedback mechanisms in the Arctic – that is, research on the various factors that can accelerate human-induced climate change. One example of this is that the more the permafrost melts, the more trapped methane is released into the atmosphere. “This is a subject we still know too little about,” says Mr Orheim.

Not just about research

While previous polar research was influenced by the polar countries’ race to claim Arctic territory, the driving force behind IPY 2007-2008 was primarily a fundamental desire to conduct research and acquire new knowledge. Still, political and commercial issues cannot be avoided.

“It would be naive to believe that polar research is only about research,” asserts Mr Orheim. An interest in exploiting the Arctic oil and gas reserves in the future and the possibility of sailing large vessels through ice-free polar seas no doubt play a role when large-scale research projects are launched in these areas.

As the only country with sovereignty over territory in both the Arctic and the Antarctic, Norway has much to gain by taking a leadership role in international polar research. “Only the USA, Canada and possibly Russia invested more resources than us in the Fourth International Polar Year. We should be very pleased with that,” says Mr Orheim.

From Forskning magazine no. 2/2010

The International Polar Year in figures
  • 63 participating countries
  • 151 research projects
  • 88 research projects with Norwegian partners
  • NOK 330 million earmarked by Norway for IPY
  • About NOK 100 million allocated by Norway through other programmes


Written by:
Bård Amundsen/Else Lie. Translation: Connie Stultz/Victoria Coleman
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