A Surprising Abundance of Life
Both the Arctic and Antarctic seem beyond life: icy, treeless, hostile places. Yet these polar regions host a surprising abundance of life, ranging from the microbial to the awe-inspiring, from bacteria to bowhead whales.
Important differences mark North and South. The North Pole lies in the middle of an ocean surrounded by land, while the South Pole rises from the center of a continent surrounded by an ocean. In the Arctic, human habitation stretches back for thousands of years. The Inuit and other indigenous peoples in the Arctic continue to carry out age-old traditions while adopting modern technology for subsistence hunting and fishing. The Antarctic has no "native" human populations but hosts a visiting population of scientists and support personnel every year. Human migration and methods of interacting with the environment form important research topics for NSF-supported social scientists who work in the Arctic, while the human scientists in the Antarctic focus on the effects of isolated and confined environments.
The poles were still poorly understood places when scientists the world over organized a special effort called the International Geophysical Year (IGY) to study the Earth and Sun on an unprecedented scale. The IGY, which ran from July 1957 to December 1958, was modeled on two previous International Polar Years and brought NSF firmly into the realm of polar science.
During the First Polar Year (1882-1883), scientists and explorers journeyed to the icy margins of the Earth to collect data on weather patterns, the Earth's magnetic force, and other polar phenomena that affected navigation and shipping in the era of expanding commerce and industrial development. By the Second Polar Year (1932-1933), new fields of science had evolved, such as ionospheric physics, which peers into the outer layer of Earth's atmosphere. Data collected during the Second Polar Year contributed to new meteorological maps for the Northern Hemisphere and verified the effects of magnetic storms on radio waves. Still, scientists lacked a complete
picture of how ice, atmosphere, land, and oceans worked together at the poles as a system of cause and effect.
Technological advancements in
rockets, satellites, and instrumentation during the 1940s and 1950s allowed more and better measurements in the remote Arctic and Antarctic. By the time of the 1957-1958 IGY, researchers were free to explore the ocean floor as well as the upper atmosphere: they could use nuclear-powered submarines to plunge under the ice cap and discover new ocean ridges, and launch rocket-powered satellites to make remote geophysical measurements. For the first time, the polar regions became year-round research platforms available for widespread international cooperation. Furthermore, everyday citizens became involved in scientific observations. People in the far north and the far south recorded their own aurora sightings and temperature readings, information that was funneled to scientists. Sixty-seven countries participated in the IGY, including the United States and the Soviet Union. Despite Cold War tensions between east and west, the world was engaged in cooperative, coordinated science at the poles and other parts of the world.
The IGY set the stage for polar research at NSF in two ways. First, scientists came to think of the poles as natural laboratories in which to capture and integrate diverse data about "the heavens and the earth." Second, polar research became a cooperative international undertaking. Following the IGY, the twelve countries that had established some sixty research stations in Antarctica concluded a treaty to use Antarctica for peaceful purposes only, to freely exchange scientific information, to prohibit nuclear explosions and disposal of radioactive wastes, and to maintain free access to any area on the continent. By 1999, the Antarctic Treaty had forty-four parties, representing two-thirds of the world's human population; other agreements were made, too, including a protocol for improved environmental protection of Antarctica.
The 1990s also saw cooperation blossom up north. In 1996, the eight Arctic nation-states established the Arctic Council, the result of a process of negotiations aimed at protecting the Arctic environment while also allowing for vital research.