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posted 03/01/04

Earth Institute Experts and President of Iceland Discuss Changing Polar Environments
Meeting Focuses on Global Impacts

Iceland's President Olafur
        Ragnar Grimsson

At the Explorer's Club, Iceland's President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson discusses the importance of research and exploration in the polar regions.

The polar environments are undergoing dramatic changes, from decreased sea ice cover in the Arctic to collapsing ice shelves in the Antarctic. In response to these changes, the international science community has begun planning for the International Polar Year (IPY) in 2007-08.

To foster discussion on IPY 2007-08, Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute held a meeting of polar experts that was presided over by Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, President of Iceland, on Arctic and Antarctic issues that have both local and global impacts.

In attendance were experts in climate and polar environments from various Nordic countries, Russia and the United States, including Wally Broecker, Newberry Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Columbia Unviersity, who Sachs heralded in his introduction."Wally is without question the world's leading authority on global climate change, and the early voice on the fact that human beings are provoking the climate in unpredictable ways," said Sachs.

Robin Bell, a research scientist at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory who is serving as Vice-Chair of the ISCU (International Council of Scientific Unions) IPY Planning Committee for 2007-08, and Peter Schlosser, Associate Director of the Earth Institute who is on the US National Committee to the IPY 2007-08, presented change in the polar environments, as well as exploration, as the two important motivating factors for planning an International Polar Year. Bell and Schlosser, both Earth Institute scientists, were the two keynote speakers at the meeting.

"Change is happening in the poles, and there is a need to study it," said Bell.

Acording to Bell, what little data there is on the Antarctic reveals signs of change. Research shows significant warming along the Antarctic Peninsula, and there is evidence that parts of the Antarctic ice sheet are draining more rapidly.

Also, Bell cited an incident in March 2002, when satellite photos captured an ice shelf about the size of Delaware disintegrating; another indication, according to Bell, that "change is happening" in the Antarctic.

According to Schlosser, the Arctic environment is also changing. Climate models predict that the Arctic Ocean will be ice-free during the summer as early as 2050. The Arctic Ocean has been covered in ice for millions of years, and scientists agree that the melting of such large amounts of fresh water into ocean currents has enormous implications for global climate change.

Iceland's President Grímsson said that the process of creating an IPY was something that his country wanted to be involved in. "For us, it is one of the ways in which we can make a meaningful contribution to the global community," he said.

Bell said the concept for an IPY in 2007/8 is being advanced by both the International Union of Scientists and the World Meteorological Organization. Bell said eighteen nations have formed IPY committees, and 140 preliminary ideas have been submitted.

"The science community is beginning to mobilize," said Bell. "And the planning process from the science side is underway."

The meeting was held at the Explorer's Club in New York City on January 30th, 2004.

The have been three previous International Polar Years, the first in 1882-83, when 11 nations participated in 15 polar expeditions. During the last International Polar Year in 1957-58, scientists from 67 nations participated, overcoming cold-war politics to do so.

The Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, a member of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, is one of the world's leading research centers examining the planet from its core to its atmosphere, across every continent and every ocean. From global climate change to earthquakes, volcanoes, environmental hazards and beyond, Observatory scientists provide the basic knowledge of Earth systems needed to inform the future health and habitability of our planet. For more information, visit

The Earth Institute at Columbia University is the world's leading academic center for the integrated study of Earth, its environment, and society. The Earth Institute builds upon excellence in the core disciplines — earth sciences, biological sciences, engineering sciences, social sciences and health sciences — and stresses cross-disciplinary approaches to complex problems. Through its research, training and global partnerships, it mobilizes science and technology to advance sustainable development, while placing special emphasis on the needs of the world's poor.

Related Links:

"A Year to Remember at the Ends of the Earth," Science, March 4, 2004
"The International Polar Year," Science, March 4, 2004