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The International Polar Year: Opportunity of a Lifetime

Dr. Paula Dobriansky, Under Secretary for Democracy and Global Affairs
Ralph Cicerone, President, National Academy of Sciences; Robin E. Bell, Senior Research Scientist, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and Chair of U.S. International Polar Year; and Arden L. Bement, Jr., Director, National Science Foundation
Washington, DC
February 26, 2007


MR. CICERONE: We are here to celebrate the beginning of the International Polar Year 2007-2008. And over the next year or two, the IPY is going to involve scientists from 50, perhaps 60 different countries in coordinated international research to study our earth's north and south polar regions intensively.

In this very building 50 years ago, we held another opening ceremony for the start of the International Geophysical Year, which was a global science research enterprise, and it succeeded in giving us a new picture of the entire planet. Along with Sputnik, the International Geophysical Year energized science in this country and around the world and excited the public and helped science to recruit an entire generation of young scientists to study the earth, physical and life sciences.

MS. BELL: Our ability to look at the poles has advanced tremendously. We can now put in monitoring systems that would have required 20 people to keep in place and make the measurements. We can now do that remotely. So, in essence, there's a tremendous ability into realtime monitor to capture the change. Remember, we've gone from sort of understanding what's there during IGY to understanding how it's changing, and those are the tools that we now have in place. Plus, in terms of the biological front, we're now being able to apply the new tools of genomics to looking at what's happening with polar ecosystems. We no longer are simply describing who's there, but how it's evolved and how it's adapting.

UNDER SECRETARY DOBRIANSKY: The State Department supports scientific efforts worldwide by facilitating cooperation with foreign governments through science and technology agreements and through other collaborative arrangements. For example, marine science will form a very important component of International Polar Year, and our vessel clearance program ensures that marine scientific research by U.S. entities can take place in foreign Arctic waters, and vice versa.

The second issue that we're concentrating on is the area of health. And it's through the Arctic Council that we coordinate a wide range of science projects related to the International Polar Year. One of the major projects under the new "human dimension" aspect of IPY is the Arctic Human Health Initiative. Under the leadership of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Arctic Human Health Initiative will cover a broad range of health issues facing Arctic residents, including infectious diseases, chronic illnesses, dietary issues, and environmental contaminants.

Thirdly, we're leading an IPY project in energy: the Arctic Energy Summit. And later this year, the United States has plans to host a technical conference in Alaska to bring experts together, specifically together to address all fields of energy development in the Arctic, including the areas of renewables, extractive, and emerging energy technologies. The plan is to create an energy action working group to advise policymakers in the Arctic countries as to how we can better deliver energy to remote areas and at the same time how we can extract energy resources in ways that protect the environment and create good jobs for northern residents.

Finally, I want to underscore the important role played by indigenous groups. Every meeting I've gone to the Arctic Council, we have really in full force the indigenous groups representing the various countries, and also those individuals who are affiliated with International Polar Year. Alaskan natives are leading a number of projects for IPY. The Aleut International Association proposed the Bering Sea Sub-network. This is an initiative to monitor changes in the marine environment of the Bering Sea. And villagers on both sides of the Bering Sea will engage in community-based monitoring of the marine environment and fold their research into the larger Arctic Council Circumpolar Biodiversity Monitoring Program.

MR. BEMENT: The breaking of the ice this season into McMurdo was done largely by a Swedish icebreaker by the name of ODEN. Now, that icebreaker not only had scientists onboard but also teachers onboard, four teachers. During the course of the research that was being done along the ice edge to do mammal population counts and krill counts and so forth, the teachers did uplinks to their classes and they actually brought Antarctica into the classroom.
But in addition to that, one of the arrangements of their being able to have this opportunity is that they would develop instructional materials for classrooms based on their experience.

MS. BELL: You know, what is important about IPY? When I -- l like to look under things. I was the kind of kid who flipped over every rock in the back yard. And that's what I like to do in the Antarctica, sort of flip over the ice sheet and look underneath. Because this is what's going to control much of what happens with the ice sheet stability in the long run is what's underneath, whether it's the water we're finding moving dynamically, whether it's the mountain ranges we know nothing about. But this set of problems are the ones that we cannot address as single nations. These are places we cannot go alone and that the IPY provides a unique opportunity for us to get to through collaboration with the international science community.

So what will the legacy of IPY be? The IPY legacy will be rich. Our understanding of the polar regions will be advanced. We'll end up with an observation system. We'll be in place to monitor the change in the Arctic and in the Antarctic. We're certain to encounter new discoveries and advances in our understanding. But just as important will be what we've time and again is the outcome will be the new generation of scientists and engineers who will be motivated to understand our planet and address the pressing issues of change. This IPY is an opportunity of a lifetime.

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