The World Meteorological Organization and International Council for Science launch the International Polar Year – 2007-2008 Interview with “WMO Polarman” Eduard Sarukhanian

Eduard Sarukhanian, a Russian national, has dedicated most of his life to Arctic and Antarctic research — either here in Geneva, in Russia or in the Polar regions themselves. His passion is the polar areas and, despite the cold and harsh climate, he talks about it with so much enthusiasm that even a “snow hater” would become a devoted “Polar fan” after spending an hour in his company. Eduard Sarukhanian was “bitten by the Polar bug a long time ago” and one of his wishes is that other people could visit the Polar regions to understand the role of the poles and their impact on the entire globe.
Q: Why is 2007 going to be the International Polar Year?
The first Polar Year happened 125 years ago, in 1882-83. This had been proposed by the International Meteorological Organization, the predecessor of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). At that time, only twelve countries took part and together they established fourteen observation stations — twelve surrounding the North Pole and two in the Antarctic.
The next Polar Year took place fifty years later in 1932-33 and by that time forty-four countries were involved. By this time, radio had been invented and this technical device gave us the possibility of studying the atmosphere, not only at ground level but also at higher altitudes with help of so-called radiosondes.
These two events demonstrated the value for the international community of studying the poles. Therefore, twenty-five years later, in 1957-58, the international community started to prepare another Polar Year, but they realized that to achieve its objectivesit was necessary to have observation made as wellin the lower altitudes, so it became the International Geophysical Year. The timing was good — despite the Cold War — as everybody was interested in polar areas. The legacy of this event was the network of observational stations in Antarctica. Russia and the United States launched satellites, and it was the first time we conducted a study of the Southern Ocean surrounding Antarctic continent.
Recently, we realized that we would soon reach the fiftieth anniversary of the International Geophysical Year. Two initiating organizations, namely the International Council for Science (ICSU) and WMO, decided to celebrate this anniversary and started to think about how this should be done. The series of planning group meetings were held, and finally WMO and ICSU established a Joint Committee for International Polar Year 2007-2008 (IPY) to start IPY preparation . The Committee consist of selected fourteen prominent scientists from different disciplines and five representatives from international organizations under co-chairmanship of Dr Ian Allison (Australia) and Dr Michel Beland (Canada). We met every six months, starting in Paris, then Geneva, then Cambridge and recently in Longyearbyen, Svalbard.
Q: So what are you planning to do during for this Polar Year?
We started to think about what is going on in the Arctic as well as in the Antarctic. There are some drastic changes taking place, such as climate change affecting living conditions for the local people. And the ecological systems too, like white polar bears suffering from the fact that the sea-ice coverage is shrinking. We have to make a more exact evaluation of the situation.
We decided to examine several topics or themes. We have to look at what is going on in the Polar Regions right now — that’s the first point. Secondly, what are the changes at the poles we can identify and what are the reasons behind them — not only natural ones but also anthropogenic ones? The third point is – what impact these changes may have on the rest of the globe.. The fourth point is related to scientific frontiers. For instance, recently, scientists discovered some sub-glacial lakes in the Antarctic and that’s an interesting phenomenon that we did not know much about. The next point is why do we not use the position of the poles as a vantage points, and then, of course, we would like to use this for some scientific research. Finally, the sixth point is examining the social factors, such as the living conditions of the indigenous people, how climate changes affect them, what their contribution to global cultural diversity and so on.
WMO and ICSU then contacted all their Member-countries and asked them what were their intentions and propositions for participating in this important event.
The response was overwhelming. We received more than 1,200 proposals, which presented the Joint Committee with a huge task. We divided these 1,200 ideas into three groups – firstly, cluster projects that were large enough to absorb other projects; secondly, projects that were not big enough to be independent and therefore had to be associated with one of the cluster projects; and, lastly, ones that were not acceptable.
Finally, by end of January 2006, IPY International Programme Office located in Cambridge had received more than 450 project proposals based on these expressions of intent. You can find them on . After careful evaluation of these full proposals against IPY criteria the Joint Committee endorsed
172 scientific projects, one project for data management activities, and 52 projects for outreach and education, making a total of 225. The latter are taking place in schools, museums and exhibitions. Many of these activities are closely linked to the indigenous peoples, because they would like to demonstrate how they live and work with scientists to bring their traditional knowledge and experience.
Q: How do you obtain the money?
As you correctly surmise, we depend upon money. Indeed, we have had some good news! Canada, for instance, announced that it would provide 150 million Canadian dollars to IPY projects; Norway, United Kingdom, Netherlands and other countries provided substantial contributions for IPY. Even countries that are far away from the Poles announced that they would pay for their participation in IPY projects. We do not have an exact figure from all participating countries, and that’s the reason why I cannot give you a full picture about finding for all the projects. As I told you, we have a total of 225 projects, but how many of them will actually be realized depends on funding. We shall have a clearer picture by the end of this year.
In fact, the IPY will last more than one year — it starts in March 2007 and goes on to March 2009. We are trying to cover all seasons – and we don’t have the same seasons in the Arctic and the Antarctic simultaneously.. It is, of course, an international campaign — people are going on expeditions, making observations at the stations, research in laboratories. Our privilege — and maybe our most difficult task — is to organize all this. In thirty two countries we already have national IPY committees, as in Norway for instance which kindly host our session in Svalbard in September this year
These national committees are working very hard to help us organize IPY activities in their countries, and we hope that all the projects will be implemented. Nevertheless, it already gives scientists the possibility of expressing a lot of interesting ideas that should be very beneficial for future generations.
Q: Why are you so interested in the Polar Regions?
I am a Polar man! I spent one year at North Pole Station number 19 in 1970 and I went three times to the Antarctic. I am familiar with these places.
I studied at the Marine Academy and graduated as an oceanographer. Then I worked in the Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute in Saint Petersburg for twenty years. In the 1980s we carried out so-called Polar experiments, but at that time this did not involve such a wide international participation., Now we are expecting altogether 50,000 participants in the IPY.
Q: What is the benefit for ordinary people like me?
We will be able to forecast what you can expect in the future. We also have a very optimistic view about the natural resources in the Arctic. An assessment has shown that there are a lot of natural resources in these areas, but it is not easy to exploit them. However, as scientists we hope that this International Polar Year will provide a lot of answers to questions and how to exploit these resources, but not damage a fragile polar environment. . Secondly, we also have to look to the future: what will it be like for people living there? We are also concerned about leaving a kind of IPY legacy, that is to say, the systems we establish should enable us to produce information for a decade or more concerning climate change, ecological changes and so on. We are currently trying to put this in place – polar monitoring for decades. We will provide knowledge about the polar areas that forms scientific basis for climate prediction and hydrometeorological services for social and economic activities in the Arctic. For this reason a lot of National Meteorological and Hydrological Services intent to actively participate in IPY That’s what we can do for people like you…
Q: Are you planning some events for the general public?
Official international lunch of IPY is planned to be in Paris on 1 March 2007 and will be done by ICSU and WMO. There will be also national events taking place all over the world. In Geneva, WMO will celebrate World Meteorological Day, 23 March 2007, and the theme will be “Polar Meteorology: Understanding Global Impacts”. Q: How can people get information about the IPY?
You can visit the International Polar Year website where people can find information regarding projects and news.
Q: If you had a wish – what would it be?
I remember when I served at the ice-drifting station “North Pole -19” we received lots of letters from young people, schools girls and boys. They told us that they would like to come and spend some time with us. So I wish that one day they could come and visit North Pole; not all, of course! The polar areas are always changing. If you want to test your endurance, then it is a good way of facing the harshness of nature. I would also like them to look at the results of our Polar Year. No matter what they do later on in their professional lives, they should think about the way the polar areas affect our daily lives in the rest of the globe. And of course, I wish to people to look after our planet, our wonderful home for future generations.