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Exellent timing for Polar Year 2007-2008

The timing could not have been better. Just as the world begins to wake up to the role that polar regions play in climate change, the international science community has launched a massive, focused campaign of research, on the Arctic and Antarctic, called the International Polar Year (IPY). Approximately 1.5 billion USD has been committed by 60 countries, financing 228 approved projects and involving over 50,000 researchers during a two-year blitz of research. Although it is called "the polar year," the program was designed so that it would officially last from 1 March 2007 until 1 March 2009, thus ensuring the inclusion of two full seasons of study in both hemispheres. In actuality, it is envisioned that research directly connected to the IPY will stretch for up to five-to-ten years.

The coincidence of all that new research with the upsurge in interest in how climate change is impacting on the Arctic and Antarctic is even more remarkable considering that the IPY is part of what now must be called a traditional cycle of research on the polar regions. Calling it a tradition stems from the fact that the last IPY, better known as the International Geophysical Year, was held in 1957-58, the one before that in 1932-33, and the original IPY, in 1882-83. Although fields such as meteorology, geophysics, oceanography and other natural sciences completely dominated the first three IPYs, the current one represents a true breakthrough by including a substantial number of projects, almost a fifth of the total, on different aspects of the "human dimensions" of polar life. While masses of detail about the IPY can be found on its main website,, a few more points are worth highlighting out here. One of these regards the categories that the research has been organized under. The main themes for its research framework are:

1. Status: to determine the present environmental status of the polar regions;
2. Change: to quantify and understand past and present natural environmental and social change in the polar regions and to improve projections of future change;
3. Global linkages: to advance understanding on all scales of the links and interactions between polar regions and the rest of the globe, and of the processes controlling these;
4. New frontiers: to investigate the frontiers of science in the polar regions;
5. Vantage point: to use the unique vantage point of the polar regions to develop and enhance observatories from the interior of the Earth to the sun and the cosmos beyond;
6. The human dimension: to investi-gate the cultural, historical and social processes that shape the sustainability of circumpolar human societies and to identify their unique contributions to global cultural diversity and citizenship.
(IPY Joint Committee, 2007*)

Each of the six themes is broken down into numerous sub-themes. The 6th theme, "The human dimension," is described according to the following headings:

• Integration of the knowledge and observations of polar residents
• Societal and human aspects of interdisciplinary studies
• Human health and well-being in polar regions
• Studies in polar history and human exploration of polar regions

The observation made above, about the breakthrough of the current edition of the International Polar Year in its commitment to the Human Dimensions theme, is confirmed by the IPY Joint Committee's own description of its history regarding that theme. It is worth quoting the passage here at some length, to give the full flavour of this historic trend-setting development:

Previous Polar Years had no socio-cultural studies within their official research programme. [Emphasis ours.] Historically, social and human-oriented polar research was advanced independently of IPY initiatives and has been focused on the key role played by such social factors as the economy, industrial development, politics, demography and health in the overall increase of scientific knowledge of polar regions. A very strong social and human component was integrated into IPY 2007–2008 programme planning from the outset, unlike previous Polar Years. The social and human component programmes will expand well beyond the former range of topics. These will include new fields such as the interactions between the world economy, large-scale societies and small polar communities; the new global role of polar resources in many critical fields, from energy supplies to the preservation of earth ecosystems; strategies for economic and cultural sustainability for polar residents; studies of local knowledge of the polar environment, or local ecological knowledge and the application of polar residents' observations to the study of Arctic climate change. (IPY Joint Committee, 2007, p. 51)

That shift and growth in the IPY's perspective is laudable and welcome and we all look forward to the results. At the same time, it is hoped that concerns expressed by some residents of the Arctic, about whether or not the residents themselves would be included, as active participants in carrying out the research, and not just as the subjects of study, will not prove justified. Like so many of the other results that are awaited with great anticipation by the world community, concerned with global change and the fate of the planet, the livelihoods of Arctic residents are hanging in the balance.

By Richard Langlais, previous Senior Research Fellow at Nordregio

* Access the IPY Joint Committee's full research framework description, The Scope of Science for the International Polar Year, at