On March 1st, 2007, the world celebrated the official launch of International Polar Year 2007-2008. Various announcements, scientific symposia, cultural events, and other activities marked the beginning of 24 months of coordinated, collaborative, multidisciplinary, international observations in the polar regions. The disciplinary breadth of this IPY far exceeds the previous Polar Years of 1882, 1932 and 1957, but the spirit of collaborative research at the ‘ends of the Earth’ remains.
Canada’s participation in the first IPY was relatively modest. On April 3rd, 1882, the federal government announced a grant of $4,000 to support the British IPY party traveling to Fort Rae on the shores of Great Slave Lake. The responsible minister was asked about the purpose of this grant, and he replied, “The object is to obtain a better knowledge of the atmospheric laws and magnetic forces which are supposed to affect the state of the weather. It is supposed that this will enable observers at Toronto and elsewhere to better prognosticate the weather and we shall gain largely in that respect.” History shows that indeed we did gain largely from the investment in this and subsequent Polar Years. The legacy of the Polar Years is the very history of Arctic and polar research in Canada and around the world. The first IPY was launched at a time when no country alone could mount an effective program with sufficient regional coverage to provide answers to ‘big’ scientific questions in the Arctic, and this is still true.
The wide-ranging and significant impacts of climate warming in the Arctic and Antarctic will be the central focus of IPY 2007-2008. Of equal significance to Canada are the human dimensions of IPY. This focus on social, cultural, economic, human health and environmental changes in the Arctic region will distinguish and enrich this IPY.
The polar regions are increasingly becoming the places where scientific questions are developed in collaboration with the people who live there. The peoples of the polar regions are now welcomed onto research teams and they bring to the table unique skills and knowledge which is respected by their collaborators—knowledge that has often been acquired through time by many generations. The significance and relevance of traditional and local knowledge in understanding change in the polar regions is recognized as a crucial ingredient, and IPY will greatly advance our understanding of these contributions.
Many individuals and groups have assisted in the planning for IPY, in Canada and around the world. The variety of partnerships that have evolved during the early stages of IPY includes universities, aboriginal organizations and governments, provinces and territories, industry & businesses, foundations, the arts community, educational agencies and youth organizations. Indeed, university students are leaders in Canada and internationally as champions for the next generation of polar researchers.
The additional $150 million that the Government of Canada has dedicated to support the IPY program will serve as fuel, by strengthening Canadian polar research during this critical period. Support for polar science through many ongoing research and funding programs within numerous government departments and agencies will also focus on IPY activities over the next few years.
In many respects, IPY has already succeeded. It has fostered international cooperation at a higher level and across a much wider range of polar science than at any previous time. Now, many efforts are underway to harness the momentum and resources of IPY to ensure that its impact is substantive and long lasting. The legacies of IPY 2007-2008 must include new and enhanced observation networks and research facilities, an unprecedented degree of access to data and information about the polar regions, a new generation of polar scientists, and the engagement of residents of the polar regions, the public and policy makers worldwide. Achieving these outcomes will likely require as much dedication and effort as the preparations for the IPY activities themselves.
However, support for northern science and research in Canada is undergoing a renaissance of sorts and IPY is a very significant step forward. IPY research will lead to some fascinating results, and researchers will be applying new technological innovations such as undersea rovers, satellite systems, new genetic methods, and robotic observation systems. But, when it is all over, fostering a greater awareness and understanding of the polar regions for Canada, for Northerners, and for the rest of the world will be the real legacy.
David Hik is the Executive Director for the Canadian IPY Secretariat & Ian Church is the Chair of the Canadian IPY National Committee.
The views and ideas expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect those of the Canada Foundation for Innovation or its Board Directors and Members.