What will be the legacy of International Polar Year?

A selection of the Canadian contributions to International Polar Year appear in the November 2012 issue of the journal Climatic Change, available free online. Guest editor of this special issue, Tanuja Kulkarni, told me that the choice of journal reflects one of the main concerns of Canadian research during the year (really two years): how Canada’s arctic is changing and adapting (or not) to warming temperatures. (In the interests of full disclosure, Tanuja is a friend, and I’m proud of her role in this important publication.)

But the second main thrust for the IPY research was the health and well-being of northern communities. While there have been three other IPYs in history, they have focussed on hard sciences, whereas this one brought in the social aspects. As well, community knowledge played a role in many of the research projects, including those collecting scientific evidence.

As the authors point out in the introduction, past IPYs dating from the 1880s to the 1950s broke new scientific ground. From them, we learned about the jet stream and the ozone layer, among other discoveries. They also fostered international collaboration instead of competition, which allowed sharing of new knowledge that would not otherwise have been possible. They set the stage for the continuing international scientific exploration of Antarctica, as an example.

So what will come out of Canada’s work on the 2007-2008 IPY? A few years ago, I attended a symposium by IPY-funded researchers as part of the annual Canadian ecology and evolution conference. They were doing important research on the changing tree line, which in some places is moving northward year over year as the climate warms, with important effects on albedo and ecology. Others were studying what happens as permafrost melts, releasing additional greenhouse gases such as methane into the atmosphere, in a vicious circle that exacerbates climate change.

Climate, ecology, community — the interdependence of these systems is becoming increasingly apparent. A holistic view of our north is one of the positive legacies, certainly. Understanding the global effects of what happens in northern Canada is another. We will hear more in years to come about what is called the “cryosphere”: snow, permafrost and ice. These play a much more influential role in world climate and ecology than we ever imagined.

And, if we learn anything at all, we will learn that Canada has a challenge shared with only a few other arctic countries as guardian and steward of the north. There is a danger with the end of IPY funding that we will lose the momentum of this important research. We need to continue to explore the land — and sea — that are now less mysterious and more complex than previously thought.

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