The story of history’s largest polar research campaign and what it taught us

The late 2000s saw researchers undertake an ambitious global effort to understand the polar regions. The discoveries that arose from this period are still shaping today’s climate change research and our forecasts of the future.

A large black bird flies across Antarctic ice. Red algae is growing on the ice in the foregorund. Rocks are emerging from the ice in the centre of the image, and there are heavy grey clouds partially covering distant mountains.
Source: Getty Images

Austro-Hungarian naval officer and explorer Karl Weyprecht first had the idea for an International Polar Year after returning from an Arctic expedition in 1875. The concept was to bring together researchers from around the world for a mass expedition to the Arctic and Antarctic, setting aside competition in the name of scientific discovery and sharing results.

Black and white photo portrait of Karl Weyprecht, a man in formal military dress with short dark hair and a bushy dark beard
Black and white photo portrait of Karl Weyprecht, a man in formal military dress with short dark hair and a bushy dark beard
“Results of much greater scientific value can be expected if standard observations are made by observers using similar instructions for recording phenomena at simultaneous periods, and who exchange the results of their observations without discrimination.” Karl Weyprecht

Weyprecht’s brainchild came to life in 1882–83 — sadly, he wasn’t alive to see it, and it wasn’t quite as collaborative as he’d first envisioned. But the legacy of his idea has been long lived, with a second International Polar Year (IPY) taking place in 1932–33, a related International Geophysical Year in 1957–58, and most recently, the fourth IPY in 2007–08.

This was the largest yet, involving around 50,000 scientists, students and support staff from over 60 nations. Despite the name, the intensive research and observation periods formally continued until 2010, and some went on for longer.

Earlier IPYs were focused on collecting consistent data on the geophysical phenomena of the poles. While these fields still made up an important part of the 2007–08 IPY, it was couched in the urgency of our growing understanding of climate change. A major part of the scientific agenda for the year was to establish a clearer picture of large-scale environmental change at the poles and learn how human activity was having an impact.

It was also seen as a major public engagement opportunity, stimulating a fresh wave of funding and enthusiasm for outeach activities around the world. Some of the networks and activities it sparked continue to this day.

Overhead view of a bright blue ocean with fragments of an iceberg floating in it
Overhead view of a bright blue ocean with fragments of an iceberg floating in it
Source: Getty Images

Here are some of the key things we now know about climate change in the polar regions thanks to IPY 2007–08:

  1. The polar regions are warming faster than the rest of the planet.
    This discovery confirmed predictions from the world’s first climate model and sparked fresh concern about conservation of polar wildlife.
  2. Ice sheets are melting at a rate not seen in the last 10,000 years.
    Evidence from the Greenland ice sheet and parts of the Antarctic ice sheet showed them losing mass at increasing rates, whilst satellite data led to arresting accounts of the decline of Arctic sea ice over time.
  3. Polar regions are at high risk of climate feedback loops
    IPY research solidified our understanding of the role of albedo — the cooling effect that occurs when snow and ice reflect heat back out of the Earth’s atmosphere. We also know more about the enormous stocks of carbon in soils under permafrost in the Arctic, thought to be more than twice the amount of carbon in the atmosphere and three times greater than the biomass of the world’s forests.
    In other words, melting ice isn’t just a symptom of climate change — it has the potential to accelerate and worsen it, too.
  4. What happens in the poles affects us all
    Research during the IPY linked changing weather patterns in the eastern United States and Europe to melting ice in the Arctic ocean, which is disrupting warm ocean currents. This demonstrated the intimate connection between polar climates and the rest of the world.

A scientific legacy

The International Polar Year 2007–08 sparked investment in infrastructure, opened up new lines of investigation and strengthened international collaborations, laying the foundations for another 15 years of crucial polar research.

One example of modern polar research built on IPY discoveries is the Changing Arctic Ocean programme. It brings together over 200 UK and German researchers from 32 organisations to investigate how the Arctic Ocean ecosystem is responding to climate change. Understanding an entire ecosystem and all its interactions in stasis is complicated enough, but Changing Arctic Ocean researchers want to be able to predict how changes in the physical environment — such as increased light levels and fresh water abundance due to sea ice melt, longer summers and higher water temperatures — will impact living things in the coming years.

A walrus rearing its head above the sea surface, with snow and rocks visible behind
A walrus rearing its head above the sea surface, with snow and rocks visible behind
Large Arctic animals like this walrus depend on the health of the entire ecosystem, which is changing rapidly and unpredictably. Source: Getty Images

It’s not just about the potential to lose charismatic animals like polar bears. Climate change is also affecting less visible but highly important organisms such as plankton, krill and microbes. Not only do these feed everything else in the Arctic, changes in their abundance and life cycles can affect the ecosystem indirectly by altering nutrient cycles. They’re also major drivers of the Arctic carbon sink, drawing down huge amounts of carbon from the atmosphere to the sea floor. If these cycles will be affected, we need to know about it.

For example, in 2020 researchers published data showing that species of phytoplankton (plankton that get energy from photosynthesis) normally found in the Atlantic are moving north into the Arctic Ocean as it becomes warmer and the sea ice retreats. They’re able to use phosphorus, a key nutrient, much more quickly than Arctic species of phytoplankton, outcompeting them in some regions. This also means phosphorus availability could limit the size of phytoplankton populations in future. In an ecosystem with no plants, phytoplankton form the basis of the Arctic’s food chains, so the knock-on effects could be far-reaching.

Another recent discovery showed that in the eastern Arctic Ocean, heat from the ocean is now the major driver of sea ice melt, taking over from atmospheric heat in the last decade. This is due to changes in currents allowing more Atlantic water to enter this part of the ocean.

These and many other polar research projects around the world have taken our understanding of climate change to a new level, with an impact that reaches well beyond the poles. They’ve contributed to the progress of global climate models, policies and pledges, building on the enormous efforts made during the International Polar Year. In turn, they’re opening up new directions for the ever-more complex and multidisciplinary research that we need to understand and tackle climate change.

Want to know more?

If you’re a UK taxpayer, your contributions help fund the work of researchers modelling climate change, via UK Research and Innovation — the UK’s largest public funder of research — and the nine research councils. The Changing Arctic Ocean programme is funded by the Natural Environment Research Council. You can read more about what we do here.

You can also explore this timeline highlighting some of the most important discoveries in climate change.

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