Remarks by Karl A. Erb, director of NSF's Office of Polar Programs to the French Senate on IPY and International Collaboration

Karl A. Erb

NSF image: Karl A. Erb, director of NSF's Office of Polar Programs.


Minister Pécresse, Dr. Bréchignac, Dr. Jarraud, conference organizers Senator Gaudin and Professor Bard, honored guests, thank you for the opportunity to speak at this very special event, celebrating the International Polar Year. The IPY is already delivering impressive advances in scientific understanding. It has also created the international partnerships that made these advances possible. I believe that over the long term these partnerships will be at least as important as the discoveries being made through IPY. International cooperation on scientific research will be critical to addressing the challenges facing everyone on the globe.

We now know that what happens at the poles – the Arctic and the Antarctic – affects the entire world.

 Within the United States, the National Science Foundation was assigned the responsibility for leading the U.S. IPY effort and it fell to the Office of Polar Programs, which I direct, to carry out the task. We worked closely with our sister agencies for space, oceans and atmospheres, geology, energy, and others to coordinate our efforts. Our Congress, in its wisdom, appropriated over $120 million in additional funds to the National Science Foundation – I’ll call it NSF for short – for the purpose.

At NSF we recognized that IPY gave us the opportunity to attack problems of global importance that could not be addressed by any one nation working alone. This led to our decision to focus on two principal topics. One was to improve our ability to predict future climate change with greater accuracy – globally and from region-to-region. The second was to learn how climate change interacts with the living world, ranging from microorganisms to ecosystems to humans and their communities.

The decision to attack problems of global interest made us realize that, to be successful, we had to advance scientific collaboration between U.S. scientists and those of other countries. NSF does not operate its own laboratories; instead we provide funding to scientists and engineers at universities and other research organization so that they can carry out the research. We select the researchers to fund through a competitive merit review process in which their proposals are reviewed by independent experts. We wanted to promote international collaboration as a legacy that generations could build on and therefore we insisted that proposers explain the extent and quality of international collaboration in their proposals.

[T]he result was that American scientists worked in collaboration with scientists of 27 other countries in their IPY research.

The world is warming…

It bears emphasis that some parts of the world are warming faster than others though; Some parts of the Arctic have warmed more than 7 degrees Celsius over [a] 20 year period.

[P]art of the world that is warming really fast is the Antarctic Peninsula. This region has warmed in the last 50 years more than any other place in the Southern Hemisphere, and the rate of this warming is among the highest anywhere on Earth in recent times, certainly far higher than in other parts of the Antarctic. I will return to this in a moment.

 [NSF’s] Palmer Station, [is] a third of the way down the Peninsula from its northern tip. … The glacier behind Palmer Station has retreated more than 300 meters since the station was built in 1963. Sea ice has retreated, too.

In the Arctic the situation is even more dramatic because it covers such a large area and has such a large effect on global climate. Arctic Ocean sea ice has shrunk to the smallest area ever recorded by satellites. Some scientists have forecast an ice-free Arctic Ocean in summer by the year 2040, some even sooner.

 In polar areas experiencing rapid global warming, living species are changing. Diminishing sea ice impacts microorganisms at the base of the food chain and the impacts work their way all the way up the food chain. Sea ice is also essential habitat for many large animals, such as seals and walrus and polar bears. These creatures will be hard pressed to adapt to the changes in their environment, especially because climate change is happening so rapidly.

People who live in the Arctic are being forced to change their ways of life as a result of climate change. Sea ice that provided habitat for animals that in turn provided food for coastal villages has disappeared. The communities have had to move, with impacts that in some cases have threatened their cultures. Roads that had been built on permafrost are being ruined because the ground is thawing.

Climate change is bringing environmental change to different places in different ways and to different degrees. People and policy makers can plan effectively only when they know what will happen in the part of the world where they live. Science cannot yet predict that for them with any accuracy.

We know even less about how Antarctica is changing than we do about the rest of the world. Why is this? Partly because we did not establish and maintain long-term monitoring systems after the last polar year in the 1950’s.

Remember too that the Antarctic interior was the last part of the world to be explored. Even today large parts of Antarctica have been viewed only by satellites from space.

In fact, until the year 1840 no one even knew that the continent of Antarctica existed.

One hundred and sixty nine years ago, in January 1840, two naval expeditions explored at the same time and in nearly the same place.

They were led by Dumont d’Urville of France and Charles Wilkes of the United States.

D’Urville discovered the Adélie Coast of Antarctica.

Wilkes mapped 2,400 kilometers of coastal land… proving that Antarctica is a continent.

Today an Antarctic research station of France is on the Adélie Coast. Dumont d’Urville gave the coast this name.

The discoveries of d’Urville and Wilkes, followed by those of other explorers, engaged the interest of our citizens and governments with the result that France and the U.S. have been engaged in Antarctic ever since.

Dumont d’Urville and Charles Wilkes led two independent expeditions. But, more generally, cooperation between our two nations is as old as the beginnings of the United States and of the French Republic, when we developed our shared ideals of liberté and egalité.

The cooperation in Antarctica and in the Arctic is special, in my view, because it engages the expertise of science to solve problems common to peoples in all nations.

Now let’s step forward in time 170 years up to the present so I can give you some modern examples of our partnership at work.

[T]he French-Italian Concordia Station and the U.S. Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. … were the first truly modern research facilities in the Antarctic interior. Our two countries worked together closely on these projects, sharing expertise that we had each gathered on different topics. Without doubt we were each more successful and we each avoided mistakes by sharing experiences and expertise.

Another important station in the Antarctic interior is Vostok, operated by Russia. Like Concordia and Amundsen-Scott South Pole, Vostok is situated on very deep ice. It was the site of a truly historic research project. French, Russian and American scientists worked together there to collect ice samples all the down to 3,623 meters in depth. The ice contained the record of earth’s climate history going back in time more than 400,000 years. The work revealed strong correlations throughout that long period between temperature change and greenhouse gases. I am happy to have this opportunity to acknowledge the leadership of Dr Jean Jouzel and Dr. Claude Lorius in this seminal work.

Once Concordia station was brought into operation the European Project for Ice Coring in Antarctica ( EPICA) was able to collect ice cores at Dome C that carried the climate record back more than 800,000 years into the past.

As one more example of how these research stations enable scientific breakthroughs that would be impossible without them, the new U.S. South Pole Station is hosting an international project to build the world’s first high-energy neutrino detector, using the 3 km thick ice as the detection medium. This detector will search for the so-far undiscovered extragalactic events that create the high energy particles.

Yet another new project at the pole is a 10-meter telescope that looks backward in time to study how the remnants of the Big Bang grew into today’s galaxies.

It is completely in the spirit of our strong collaboration in Antarctica with France that we selected a young French astrophysicist to lead the scientific crew working over the Antarctic winter at our South Pole station a few years ago. He did a marvelous job.

Another modern example of French/U.S. cooperation in polar regions is the Concordiasi project. NSF and IPEV are supporting a collaboration between U.S. and French scientists to launch research balloons from the U.S. McMurdo Station. The balloons will carry instruments to measure characteristics of the Antarctic atmosphere that are not possible to obtain using satellites. One goal of this large project is learn how the movement of air masses affect the Antarctic ozone hole. The primary drivers for this important French-American collaboration are the French Agencies CNES and Meteo-France.

Turning to the Northern Hemisphere and back to climate change studies, the future of Greenland’s ice sheet has critical implications for communities around the world. Satellite measurements show that the summer melting is increasing on the ice sheet. Other satellite measurements provide strong evidence that the amount of ice remaining in the ice sheet is decreasing. If the Greenland ice sheet were to melt or disintegrate completely the result would be to increase sea levels by approximately 5 meters worldwide. The West Antarctic Ice Sheet would contribute about the same if it were to disintegrate. Either one would put Bangladesh well under water, along with many other locations around the world.

But will this happen? And if it does, over what period of time? IPY researchers worldwide are focused on answering those questions.

Many factors can and do contribute to the growth and decline of the ice sheet. For example, the summer sun creates sizeable lakes on the surface of ice sheets. Sometimes cracks develop that allow the lakes to drain to the base of the sheet. For several years this process was thought to be the primary mechanism causing the Greenland ice to flow ever more rapidly into the ocean, raising ocean levels.

[In] Greenland a scientists observed a moulin, or rapid runoff from a surface meltpond in July 2006. It lasted for only 90 minutes but during this period of time a huge volume of water cascaded to the base of the ice sheet. Measurements showed that it caused a temporary speedup of ice sheet drainage into the ocean but they also showed that moulins alone can not account for the observed loss of outlet glacier ice.

A subsequent study showed that warmer sea water is having a larger effect on the glaciers.

Both of these studies were published within the last year. They show how IPY has accelerated the pace of discovery enormously, and on topics of global importance. They also show how the oceans, the atmosphere and land and ice masses all interact in complicated ways as our climate warms. Many nations have combined to study changes in the Arctic Ocean and how these changes bring about changes in the other parts of the earth climate system.

[This map] shows international partnerships at work in the study of the Arctic Ocean, particularly those of the U.S., Canada, Russia, and the EU.. Notice how the combined efforts almost completely cover the entire ocean. This wasn’t by accident. The scientists and the funding agencies worked together to make it so. Once the separate efforts were underway the scientists forged links among the different programs, exchanging ideas, conclusions and data, and now the funding agencies are following to support those linkage efforts. Thus there is funding for the US-EU linkage and also for the U-S Canada linkage that supports the scientific goals of the science leaders. We in the governments are continuing to work to expand these linkages, developing formal agreements where they help the cause.

It’s worth noting the EU effort called DAMOCLES. This project is focused partly on measuring factors that might change the nature of the Gulf Stream, which sustains moderate temperatures in Europe.

I noted earlier that climate change in the polar regions is having significant impacts on ecosystems. Learning more about these impacts at the poles will help us predict with more confidence what could be in store for us in more temperate regions—in California and in Bordeaux, for example.

Because climates are changing in different ways in different places, plants and crops are affected differently in different places. It would be a serious economic mistake to assume that all ecosystems will respond in the same way – or that climate change will be the same everywhere. An array of land-based scientific stations has been created around the Arctic that is making it possible to study these differences. Some of them are part of an international network and for those, the exchange of ideas is producing important new insights. Both France and the U.S. belong to this LTER network, as it’s called, and we are actively discussing ways we can increase our linkages to create new knowledge and understanding.

For example, comparing the very rapid changes being observed at the U.S. Arctic and Antarctic ecology research stations to changes being studied at French sub-antarctic research sites could be very instructive. … Already, U.S. and French scientists have started discussing the benefits of collaborating in these studies. In fact, U.S. scientists have been able to visit one of the French stations, thanks to a kind invitation from Dr. Jugie.

Gerard and I have also discussed supporting linkages to advance atmospheric chemistry research in the polar ice and snow environment, taking advantage of similarities and differences between the environment at Concordia Station in Antarctica and Summit Station at the peak of the Greenland ice sheet. The interplay of snow, cold, and sunlight with the constituents of the atmosphere is an important aspect of climate change research that can be carried out only at the poles.

We both expect that our discussions will result in a more formal agreement between CNRS and NSF in the near future.

The U.S. National Academy of Sciences conducted a study prior to IPY that emphasized how important it would be to create what they called an Arctic Observing Network, incorporating air-, land- and ocean-based environmental monitors as well al terrestrial research stations and orbiting satellites. The Network would provide the information needed to improve climate change models and climate change impacts throughout the Arctic, region by region.

The work of scientists from many countries has, with the support of their governments, done much to develop the building blocks for achieving this vision. The next step will be to improve the linkages among the various efforts and to sustain them. Three international workshops have focused on this goal, which the organizers have called SAON, for Sustained Arctic Observing Network.

These international discussions have led scientists to realize more clearly that each of our governments organizes its support for research, scientific observing and monitoring in different ways -- for basic science, for weather forecasting, for fisheries management and so forth. Finding ways to bring together the different agencies within each government will present different challenges to each interested government. The SAON organizers have called on governments to meet this challenge as an IPY legacy in order to form a lasting observing system.

Perhaps I should spend just a minute or two describing how the United States arranges its polar research.

The National Science Foundation is responsible for managing the entire U.S. Antarctic Program, including funding the research and providing the infrastructure and logistics necessary to operate the activity. The Department of State is responsible for Antarctic governance issues.

In contrast to the Antarctic situation, and perhaps because we are an Arctic nation, we organize our Arctic research activity in a much more distributed manner. Many different federal Agencies conduct or support Arctic research when it is needed to address their different missions. NSF is the one agency that supports the full range of science necessary to understand the Arctic as a system because we support science that ranges from physics to biology to economics and behavioral science. However there are many situations where coordination would help achieve the collective goals of multiple agencies in those cases, a committee of Agency heads chaired by the Director of the National Science Foundation takes on the coordinating role.

Developing agreements with other governments that have significantly different arrangements can be a challenge but doing so always pays handsome benefits. French and American scientists are fortunate that it is so easy for our governments, and NSF and CNRS in particular, to work together in support of forefront science.

Last month in Washington, D.C., the United States hosted the 50th anniversary meeting of the Antarctic Treaty nations. France and the United States are original members of this Treaty, which reserves an area larger than the United States – larger than Europe as well -- for peaceful pursuit of science.

Our Secretary of State, Hillary Rodham Clinton, addressed representatives of these forty-seven Antarctic Treaty nations as they began their work. She said this:

“The genius of the Antarctic Treaty lies in its relevance today. It was written to meet the challenges of an earlier time, but it and its related instruments remain a key tool in our efforts to address an urgent threat of this time, climate change, which has already destabilized communities on every continent. . . . Climate change is shaping the future of our planet in ways we are still striving to understand. But the research made possible within the framework of the Antarctic Treaty has shown us that catastrophic consequences await if we don’t take action soon.”

The Antarctic Treaty is a remarkable document: It is the international framework under which scientists work in Antarctica. The Treaty was signed in Washington, D.C., in 1959. Over the years since then, 35 countries have joined the 12 original signatories, whose flags you see here at the geographic South Pole, in agreeing to abide by the treaty. These 47 nations include two-thirds of our planet’s human population.

The Treaty has encouraged international cooperation for over 50 years now.

 Comparable partnerships started developing only more recently in the Arctic. IPY has been a major factor in this important development. As I said at the opening of these remarks, I believe that the international partnerships might prove to be the most important legacy of the International Polar Year.

 The International Council of Science and the World Meteorological Organization deserve great credit for catalyzing and leading this effort. In the U.S. our National Academies – Science, Engineering, and Medicine – helped lead the way domestically.

 I am especially pleased to note Dr. Jane Lubchenko has been placed at the head of the National Oceans and Atmosphere Administration – NOAA – by President Obama. Jane led the International Council of Science (or ICSU) into IPY as its President several years ago. Now, with her new leadership position, she will continue to be a key ally as we build the legacy of IPY.

The good news continues for polar research, globally and in France.

Today’s President of ICSU, Dr Catherine Bréchignac, is, of course, also the President of CNRS.

Those of us at the National Science Foundation have been fortunate as well. Our Director, Dr. Arden Bement, has been a staunch supporter of our efforts to help make IPY a success. He will be visiting France in June to lead the U.S. delegation to the first U.S. / France Joint Consultative Meeting on Science and Technology, where I know he is looking forward to discussions with Minister Pécresse and other French scientific leaders.

The Director of France’s Institut Paul Emile Victor and I have been working together for over 10 years now to build ever more productive links between our two programs. I can see that the stars are aligned now for our continued success in this effort.

 Thank you.