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Dr. Bement's Remarks


Dr. Arden L. Bement, Jr.
Acting Director
National Science Foundation

International Polar Year 2007-2008: Implementation Workshop
National Academy of Sciences
Washington, D.C.

July 8, 2004

Good morning to all. It's my pleasure to join you today in plotting our nation's course for the upcoming International Polar Year. I'd like to thank Robin Bell and Chris Elfring for their leadership on the Polar Research Board, Bill Wulf and Mary Albert for their perspectives, and the NAS for its perseverance and guidance in formulating a national vision for the IPY.

As we proceed to identify potential contributions to the IPY by our individual agencies, I'm sure we will also begin to map out some common ground. Our meeting is timely because the International Council for Science (ICSU) and other international organizations will begin coordinating multinational IPY efforts this fall.

Both the National Academy of Sciences and ICSU have made a compelling case for why we should launch an international polar year in 2007. NSF is in full agreement. In the polar regions, we are discerning the outlines of environmental change, from sea ice extent, retreating glaciers, shifting patterns in flora and fauna, to environmental observations by Arctic natives.

What is more, such change--whether environmental, biological or social-has implications for the rest of the globe. Polar change ripples across the planet on a spectrum of time scales, through the atmosphere, oceans, and living systems.

We do not yet fully understand the causes of what we are observing. Now is the time to change this, for new tools make possible the needed observations and synthesis. They range from satellites to ships to sensors, and from genomics to nanotechnology, information technology, and advances in remote and robotic technologies.

In a moment, I'll outline some specific areas of polar research which NSF believes are key challenges for the IPY.

First, however, I would like to cast back half a century, to the International Geophysical Year, which can provide perspective not only on what has been but also on what might be.

Fifty years ago, the IGY was affirmed--right up to the level of the President of the United States-then, President Eisenhower -- as a broad contribution to our national strength.

Supporters had argued that IGY research would explore "phenomena that affect our entire civilian and defense economies and each and every citizen."1 Today, the IPY vision statement broadens the promise of discoveries as "significant to all inhabitants of this planet."2

The IGY was timely, its backers said, because instrumentation and methods "permit the taking of data that could not be achieved 25 years ago."3 Indeed, a major legacy of the IGY proved to be the collection of data on a large scale, along with standardization, storage and broad access.

Today, with the revolution in information technology that has swept science and engineering, we would expect IPY to provide a similar stimulus in our capabilities to gather, share and mine massive data sets across the disciplines.

A short list of IGY achievements in science and technology includes the launching of satellites that ushered in the Space Age, the discovery of the Van Allen radiation belts, the opening of Antarctica to modern science and laying the foundation for the Antarctic Treaty.

The IGY efforts to realistically assess the size of Antarctica's ice sheets for the first time helped to frame scientific questions still being pursued today, while climate data from that time still provides a benchmark for today's studies.

The IGY organizers understood the larger need to educate the U.S. public about our nation's role in international science. Along with NSF and the Ford Foundation, they supported an educational film series called "Planet Earth," for classrooms and public television. They also developed classroom materials and designed dramatic posters on the earth sciences.4 It is gratifying to note that today, the NAS's vision statement on the IPY specifies "exciting and engaging the public" as a major recommendation from the outset.

NSF played a leadership role for the country in the IGY era and we are looking forward to helping hoist the flag for 2007 as well.

We are especially pleased at this new opportunity, offered by IPY, to advance fundamental science, alongside the mission activities of our fellow agencies. While our Office of Polar Programs would naturally take the NSF lead, a number of NSF directorates-bio- and geosciences, education and human resources, engineering, and social and behavioral sciences-also have potential roles.

Let me turn now to some particular areas that could serve as science foci at NSF for the International Polar Year.

  • We have already joined with a number of our fellow agencies in the broadest effort to date to understand the Arctic-called SEARCH, the Study of Environmental Arctic Change. SEARCH will explore the causes of this change, and its relationship to global climate, biogeochemical cycles, ecosystems and human populations. Understanding the biological and social consequences of and adaptations to change are integral to this program.

  • In conjunction with the science, the U.S. Smithsonian Institution will launch an exhibition on Arctic change in May, 2005 called "The Arctic: A Friend Acting Strangely." We are also enthusiastic about the interest on the part of the Arctic nations and the international community in transforming SEARCH into a truly international effort, under a new name: The International Study of Arctic Change.

    I'll also mention the importance of studying the Arctic Ocean, its ecosystems and the geophysics beneath. All of these are largely unexplored, yet their study will offer insight into areas ranging from life in extreme conditions to territorial claims.

  • Another proposed NSF focus for IPY science-in potential partnership with NASA, USGS, and other agencies-is the large ice sheets, both north and south. While we know enough to recognize that we cannot yet model their behavior, their dynamics and fate are of direct consequence to human beings around the globe. The West Antarctic ice sheet, grounded below sea level, may be especially prone to instability.

    West Antarctic drilling of ice cores with finer temporal resolution will fill in the outlines of climate history gleaned from the Greenland ice cores. A field camp in West Antarctica would have potential to support activities beyond drilling, depending on scientific and international interest. We also need to study the bedrock beneath the ice sheets, which strongly influences ice stability. Geological drilling, such as in the Ross Sea, will also advance insight on critical climate junctures of the past.

  • Another high priority will be to focus genomics technology on life in the extreme conditions of polar regions. This is an area of potential collaboration with the Department of Energy. Genomic tools are coming on-line that can sample organisms directly in the natural environment and help to trace complex environmental relationships. Some startling insights about how organisms interact with, and influence, their physical environment have already come to light. More polar scientists need training in these technologies.

    Polar ecosystems rank among the least known on earth, yet these systems-often simpler than those in the rest of the world-can serve as testbeds for genomics. Also, the study of how polar organisms react to higher temperatures and ultraviolet radiation may make them "canaries in the mine" for future changes elsewhere.

  • Other areas ripe for exploration in IPY include extending observations at the polar Long-term Ecological Research Sites into the winter season and performing research on Arctic peoples. Additional activities could include establishing systems to record and share data around the world, exploring the Arctic Ocean's Gakkel Ridge, along with ecosystem changes in the Bering Sea.

All of these are exciting scientific frontiers, and exploring them will rely upon maintaining the polar science infrastructure built through U.S. investment dating back to the IGY. In Antarctica, the new South Pole Station will be completed in 2007, offering a premier laboratory for astrophysics, among other disciplines. Added to that are the state-of-the-art Crary Laboratory at McMurdo Station, facilities at the Palmer Station, and NSF's ability to erect large, temporary field camps for particular studies. Broad success of IPY activities at these facilities will hinge upon maintaining the stations, which in turn relies upon whether the Coast Guard can secure funding to keep its icebreakers operational. Logistics capabilities are critical to the success of the IPY and must be included in our planning.

I hasten to also stress the importance of international planning. International collaboration made IGY a success, and it spawned structures for peaceful scientific cooperation, like the Antarctic Treaty, that endure today. A lasting legacy of IPY will be a portrait of the "state of the poles"--a benchmark of the atmosphere, oceans, land, and ecosystems at both ends of the globe for future studies.

Perhaps this is the right time to refer back to Will Rogers, who said, "Even if you're on the right track, you'll get run over if you just sit there." The polar science communities have a spectacular scientific history, and it's the right time to move forward on this International Polar Year which is sure to accelerate discovery for the benefit of this nation and the world.

1 "A Memorandum on the U.S. Program for the IGY".
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2 "A Vision for the International Polar Year, 2007-2008," NRC.
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3 "A Memorandum…"
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4 "Shaping Up Planet Earth: The International Geophysical Year (1957-1958) and Communicating Science Through Print and Film Media," by Fae L. Korsmo, forthcoming in Science Communication (2004).
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