American Geological Institute

Government Affairs Program

Polar Research Becomes a Hot Topic

The following report appears as a News Note in the July 1998 issue of Geotimes. It is reprinted here with permission.

The polar regions of our planet may not be the most hospitable places with average temperatures in the sixties (below zero, that is!), but their very remoteness and the chemical record of past climates contained within long-lived glaciers provide scientists with tremendous insights into the rest of the planet. Several recent outreach events have sought to bring the scientific research conducted in these regions closer to home for the public and policymakers alike. Polar research was the theme for National Science and Technology Week and was featured in a congressional exhibition of research funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF). Because the geosciences play a major role in polar research, these events also provide a showcase for the valuable contributions that earth scientists are making to our understanding of past and present climates.

National Science and Technology Week

The fourteenth annual National Science and Technology Week (NSTW), an NSF-sponsored public outreach effort, was held April 26 - May 2, 1998. According to NSF Director Neal Lane, this year's theme, Polar Connections: Exploring the World's Natural Laboratories, "highlights the fact that both the North and South Poles are ... unique in the matchless opportunities they offer scientists and engineers to conduct research in pristine, natural environments." During NSTW, NSF sponsored a range of activities such as a televised electronic field trip; that showed researchers working at the Poles, supplements in major newspapers and magazines, and provided hands-on educational materials to schools. The American Chemical Society hosted a lunchtime briefing on Capitol Hill featuring representatives from the NSF Office of Polar Programs. The forum highlighted the importance of polar research -- in both the Arctic and Antarctic -- in answering questions about climate change. Michael Ledbetter said that "there is absolutely no doubt that the Arctic is warming," while his colleague Dennis Peacock noted that warming was not as uniform in Antarctica. Both stressed the need for continuous, long-term research to fully understand the dynamics of the poles and climate change.

Congressional Exhibit
One of the success stories in NSF-supported polar research has been the contributions made by ice-core investigations to our understanding of past climate change. Congressional members and staff had an opportunity to learn more about ice-core research at an exhibition and reception held May 20th on Capitol Hill at which scientists from around the country displayed research and education projects funded by NSF. Organized by the Coalition for National Science Funding, the event highlighted the importance of federal investment in science and engineering. The exhibition included 30 displays -- from a wide range of scientific disciplines -- featuring computer demonstrations, videos, and hands-on education projects.

At a display co-sponsored by the American Geological Institute and American Geophysical Union, Paul Mayewski and Mark Twickler from the University of New Hampshire's Climate Change Research Center explained the lessons learned from ice core research over the past decade as well as what they hoped to gain from future investigations. Their research, sponsored primarily by the NSF Office of Polar Programs, proved timely to a Congress debating issues related to the Kyoto Protocol on climate change.

According to Twickler, "ice cores provide the best media to study past climate" because, unlike other records such as tree rings and ocean cores, they are in direct contact with the atmosphere. Ice cores are also a virtual warehouse of information. More than forty parameters can be studied from a single ice core, including chemistry, temperature, and gas concentration. Although ice core records have shown a correlation exists between temperature and greenhouse gas concentrations, scientists are still trying to understand whether a causal relationship exists and if so in what direction. An ice core from Vostok in Antarctica that contains records from the past 420,000 years shows that current concentrations of methane and carbon dioxide are at the highest level in the core.

In addition to presenting their research at the exhibit, Twickler and Mayewski explained their research to the New Hampshire congressional delegation. In meetings with the staffs of Senator Judd Gregg (R-NH), Sen. Robert Smith (R-NH), Rep. John Sununu (R-NH), and Rep. Charles Bass (R-NH), Twickler and Mayewski discussed their plans for future Antarctic research as well as a regional initiative to better understand climate change in New England.

The geosciences were well represented at the exhibition. In addition to the AGI/AGU booth, polar research was also the focus of a booth sponsored by the Byrd Polar Research Center at Ohio State University. The National Association of Geoscience Teachers, an AGI member society, hosted a booth Working Toward More Effective Teaching in the Geosciences that featured its NSF-sponsored projects for undergraduate faculty enhancement and a distinguished lecture series. In addition, William Symes from Rice University displayed his research -- Three Variations on a Theme: Mathematical Problems Arising in Industrial Geophysics --that focused on mathematical and computational challenges in reflection seismology. The University Corporation for Atmospheric Research sponsored a booth on Visualizing Atmospheric Science in 3D.

The exhibition came at a critical time for NSF. The President had requested a ten percent increase for NSF in his fiscal year 1999 budget, but the House and Senate Appropriations Committees now have control of the spending process. For NSF to obtain the President's request, Congress will have to be convinced that NSF research is a priority.

Please send any comments or requests for information to the AGI Government Affairs Program at

Contributed by Kasey Shewey, AGI Government Affairs Program
Posted July 1, 1998

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