Expert Report

Lessons and Legacies of the International Polar Year 2007-2008 (2012)

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View the webinar recording with authoring committee co-chairs, Julie Brigham-Grette and Robert Bindschadler (1 hour 9 minutes).

International Polar Year 2007-2008 (IPY) was an intense, coordinated field campaign of observations, research, and analysis. IPY engaged the public to communicate the relevance of polar research to the entire planet, strengthened connections with the Indigenous people of the Arctic, and established new observational networks. Overall, IPY was an outstanding success. Activities at both poles led to scientific discoveries that provided a step change in scientific understanding and helped translate scientific knowledge into policy-relevant information—and at a time when the polar regions are undergoing a transformation from an icy wilderness to a new zone for human affairs, these insights could not be more timely or more relevant. From outreach activities that engaged the general public to projects that brought researchers from multiple disciplines and several nations together, the legacies of IPY extend far beyond the scientific results achieved, and valuable lessons learned from the process will guide future endeavors of similar magnitude.

Key Messages

  • Starting from the efforts of a small number of enthusiasts and agencies and building on existing multinational collaborations and science programs, IPY developed into a world-wide, community-based effort that brought together more than 50,000 researchers, local residents, educators, students, and support personnel from 60 nations and numerous scientific disciplines. The project facilitated a major expansion of polar science capabilities in terms of the number of researchers, tools, and systems devoted to this endeavor, and inspired a new level of engagement from educators, students, the residents of polar regions, and the public at large.
  • Reaching across the science spectrum, IPY's 228 projects ranged from the first high-resolution images of whole mountain ranges buried beneath the Antarctic ice sheet to modeling studies of the poles' geologic past that helped advance understanding of the risks and uncertainties of global change.
  • People were the engine that powered IPY. Without the enterprise and commitment of the myriad of participants in IPY, the wide-ranging and significant achievements of the project would not have been possible. Notably, IPY projects encouraged international collaboration that allowed the polar science community to become more connected and leveraged infrastructure and intellectual assets from multiple nations to make research projects more efficient.
  • IPY projects helped empower the next generation of polar scientists through the Association of Polar Early Career Scientists (APECS) and built diversity into the polar research community by engaging more women and increasing the participation of racial and ethnic minorities. IPY also created new connections between science and the public through a broad spectrum of education and outreach activities such as Polar Palooza, which engaged audiences with big-screen video presentations, music, and opportunities to interact face to face with dynamic polar researchers and Arctic residents with powerful stories to tell.
  • IPY helped develop new collaborations that enhanced scientists' observational capacity in many of the poles' most remote areas. For example, numerous satellite data enabled international teams to study large changes occurring in the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets.
  • During IPY, new tools were deployed that will remain in place long after IPY is over. A number of observing networks established during IPY combined or extended data collection capabilities beyond what single countries or projects could install or sustain.
  • IPY activities, particularly in human health, community vulnerability, food security, and local observations of change, sought to convert scientific data into societally relevant information to be shared with polar communities, local agencies, and grassroots organizations, particularly in Alaska and the Arctic.
  • Looking to the future, IPY-related predictive modeling will continue to play a crucial role in helping commercial enterprises, individuals, and governments assess the regional and global risks associated with ongoing melting ice, sea level rise, permafrost degradation, and other effects of rising polar temperatures in a warming world.
  • Coming at a time of rapid polar and global change, IPY investments enabled the scientific community to observe and benchmark the state of the polar system. The concept of an "international year" undertaken once in a generation's lifetime proved as valid today as it did decades ago.
  • However, not everything worked perfectly during IPY. Despite efforts by the IPY Data Committee and several coordinating workshops, the development and accessibility of IPY data products is not optimal. A further disappointment has been the lack of continued support to coordinate programs initiated during IPY. It has been hard to maintain some networks developed and nurtured during IPY, and valued components of the large IPY structure—such as the international IPY website, its publication database, and educational and outreach efforts—have struggled to find alternative resources.
  • On balance, IPY achieved its goals and was an overwhelming success. The world will continue to change, and processes of polar amplification will continue the rapid transformation of the high latitudes in coming decades. The legacy of IPY will help society to understand these changes and put knowledge into action, forging new frontiers in the protection and management of the planet's resources at all latitudes. Lessons learned from this IPY will provide a guide for planning and carrying out future international science projects.