Date: April 8, 2009

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Jim White, Chair, Polar Research Board, National Academy of SciencesDiplomats, scientists, and others gathered at the National Academy of Sciences on April 6 to celebrate the closing of International Polar Year (IPY) and learn about some of the early accomplishments.  Six top polar scientists provided overviews of initial research findings, and all noted the importance of international scientific collaborations. 


"These results could not be achieved by one nation alone," said Arden Bement, director of the National Science Foundation, which co-hosted the gathering and was the lead U.S. agency for IPY.


In discussing how the past helps us understand the future, Richard Alley, professor of geosciences at Pennsylvania State University, talked about how ice cores provide direct evidence of carbon dioxide (CO2) levels.  Alley said, "It is easy to understand: when CO2 is high, ice is low.  When CO2 is low, ice is high. CO2 does bring warming."  He praised the Antarctic Geological Drilling project, known as ANDRILL, for providing scientists with data on sediment and rock cores that can be used to help predict how ice shelves will respond to future global warming.


Timothy Killeen, assistant director for geosciences at NSF, stressed the importance of having an integrated, systems view of climate change, including the importance of polar processes.  Killeen said that one key IPY legacy will be advancing earth systems science, so researchers are better able to look at the system as a whole, spatially, and in its full complexity.  The observations and data gathered over the past two years will be mined for decades, and will support the next generation of climate models, he added.


"This IPY comes at a fundamental time," said James White, professor of geological sciences at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and chair of the Polar Research Board.  "Every generation in the past thought of the Earth as infinite.  Every generation from now on will see the Earth as finite."


The event was a kickoff to the 32nd Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting being held in Baltimore, April 6 to 17.  The meeting brings together nearly 400 diplomats, Antarctic program managers and logistics experts, and polar scientists from 47 countries, including representatives from the Arctic Council nations, to discuss regulation of activities in the polar regions.  High on the agenda are environmental protection, the advancement of science, and the management of tourism.


This year's meeting marks the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Antarctic Treaty. The treaty ensures that Antarctica is used exclusively for peaceful purposes and guarantees freedom of scientific research on the continent.  Many consider it the first modern international arms control treaty.  Preliminary negotiations for the treaty took place at the National Academy of Sciences building in 1958.


An audio recording of the three hour symposium is available here. International Polar Year is an international coordinated campaign to study and explore the polar regions. This is the fourth such campaign over the past 125 years.