International Polar Year 2007-2008, logo, designed by Ralph Percival, Mouse in the House Graphic Design, 2006.
In what may turn out to be the biggest international scientific project to date, an army of thousands of scientists will spend the next two years studying the Arctic and Antarctic as part of the International Polar Year, which officially begins this week. Organizers of the project say as many as 50,000 researchers from 63 countries will take part in the program, which seeks to focus both scientific and public attention on Earth's polar regions.
The "biggest international scientific project" with "50,000 researchers from 63 countries"? One would think this would be news. Barely, it was. I read about it in the The Chronicle of Higher Education. (The New York Times covered it here.) Intrigued, I asked myself, what does such big science look like? What kind of images represent such a large-scale international initiative?
International Polar Year 2007-2008, international logo, designed by Ralph Percival, Mouse in the House Graphic Design, 2006.
The International Polar Year is an international project with an international logo, and even a "logo and branding policy."
There is also an American branch of the project, involving everyone from US Departments of Agriculture, Education, Energy, Interior and State, to the Environmental Protection Agency, Geological Survey, Fish and Wildlife Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the Smithsonian Institutions. The National Science Foundation seems to be the lead US organization. When first digging through these sites, it seemed as if the US government wanted or needed its own typographic version of an identity program for the project, albeit with the same logo.
International Polar Year 2007-2008, U.S. logotype, designer unknown, 2006.
Digging deeper into IPY websites, it's pretty easy to get lost. It appears there was an earlier site, now labeled "classic.ipy.org," with the typographic approach adopted by the US affiliate. And then another one. And then another US site. (There are also sites for Canada, Denmark, Finland, Germany, The Netherlands, Norway, Portugal and Sweden; 22 countries have no websites. What about the other 30+ countries that are not listed?) I'm only guessing what went on here, but let's just note that informational and graphic consistency is not a hallmark of this project. The IPY logo itself is the cliché one would expect from an international organization: a globe in a circle, a stick-figure Universal Man crucified against the world (or, thanks to Steven Heller, reminiscent of Da Vinci or Homer Simpson), an active arrow for progress, the earth's axis reminding us of the poles.
International Polar Year Planning Chart, v.4.4, 2007.
Then I stumbled on this remarkable chart: the IPY Planning Chart, mapping 200+ areas in the polar research. And this database of 1100+ projects. These encouraged me to dig further.
Topographic reconnaissance map, Union Glacier, Antarctica, detail, 1966.
There is the new Atlas of the Cryosphere that allows you to explore and dynamically map the Earth's frozen regions. There's this amazing archive of topographic reconnaissance maps. There's a student project to conduct ice experiments around the world, mapped on GoogleMaps. There are live projects, like the Arctic Observatory Mission slated for April 18-28, 2007, at the Russian/French ice camp Borneo in the Arctic — videos coming soon! And webcams here and here (simply breathtaking!), and photo archives too. Now I'm excited.
Comparison of the McCall Glacier terminus in 1958 (photo by A. Post) and in 2003 (photo by M. Nolan).
And then there are stories and photographs, all telling us that the earth is really changing. "Ole Jørgen Hammeken will soon be setting out on an expedition to find a new route between the towns of Uummannaq and Ilulissat in western Greenland since the traditional dogsled route, via the frozen waters of the Disko Bay, no longer freezes in the winter." Or the photographs, taken between 1957 and 2007, showing the decline of the McCall Glacier, located in the eastern Brooks Range of northern Alaska. Anyone still not convinced that global warming is upon us would do well to reconsider: these images are hard to dispute.
This International Polar Year is not the first such international scientific initiative focused on the polar regions — it's actually the fourth in 125 years (timeline here).The First International Polar Year (1882-1883) was the inspiration of the Austrian explorer Karl Weyprecht, and 15 expeditions to the poles were completed. The Second International Polar Year (1932-1933) investigated the newly discovered "Jet Stream," and led to "Little America" on the Ross Ice Shelf, the first research station inland from Antarctica's coast. The International Geophysical Year (1957-58) was founded by eminent physicists and led to the discovery of the Van Allen Radiation Belt, and confirmation of continental drift theory. But this last international project was also the beginning of the cold war, with the United States and the Soviet Union wanting to plant flags in Antarctica and the Arctic. To celebrate the beginning of this event, both countries launched satellites (the Soviet Union's Sputnik 1 in October 1957), thereby officially beginning the space race. This evolution from 19th Century exploration to 20th Century research to 21st Century "saving the planet" is, of course, the tragic history of only three generations.
Interestingly, the International Geophysical Year became gist for parody and comedy. It was featured in a long run of Pogo comic strips by Walt Kelly. During Kelly's "G.O. Fizzickle Year," characters make their own scientific contributions, including putting a flea on the moon. As late as 1982, the jokes were still coming, including IGY by Donald Fagen. "What a beautiful world this will be / What a glorious time to be free."
We can only hope that our International Polar Year does not lose its focus in such international politics. The websites may be chaotic, but there's something compelling about 50,000 researchers working on our future. It's a staggering initiative, and it's easy to lose yourself in the sheer vastness of the data. Which may be precisely the point.
The Polar Regions, National Science Foundation, photographer unknown.