William Drenttel | Essays

International Polar Year

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.

Posted in: Business, History, Science

Comments [17]


Joe Moran

Great amount of info, thanks...
vincent keane

Due to global warming, glaciers around the globe may well be shrinking - but in New Zealand, they're reversing that trend. They're healthily growing! Ditto for Norway, Patagonia and perhaps even California (!?)
Andrew Haig

Interestingly, the climate change we're facing (which we call global warming) can have have a cooling effect in some areas, due to the circulation of our oceans.

Everyone knows science is for NEEEERRDS.

Seriously, though...everything looks incredibly dated and stodgy. Why can't their aesthetics reflect the current state of science & technology - M theory, strings, complexity, chaos, etc.? The least they could do is tap into the look & feel of the green or nerdcore movement, ala Al Gore or John Hodgman.

Let's make science hip again.

Glen I am under the impression that your priorities may need rethinking.

Interesting information, lame logo.

Von Glitschka

achilles, I think your sense of humor may need to be adjusted.

The International Polar Year is an immense project that could gain some press coverage by having a better brand. Since scientists rely heavily on donations & public support, you can see how this is an issue.

As Mr. Drenttel mentioned in the article, he had to stumble and really dig to get excited about the project. If that excitement was readily available and organized, it would be easier to get excited about the project. This would mean, hopefully, more funds, more projects, more people interested/inspired, and ultimately more discovery.

I trust that there is much more than photos and video posted to show how the earth is shifting, as that in and of itself is not a substantial science based approach to enlightening oneself regarding this topic or the cause of these supposed changes.

More productive activities
Corporate Leadership

Whether global warming is a threat or infact real has yet to be scientificly proven. We've had big changes in temperature many times over the time the earth has existed. A thousand years ago, Greenland was actually warmer than it is today. The ocean also has its "memory" and things that happened ten thousand years ago, may surface today (forgive the pun). Also, the release of CO2 caused by humans is unlikely to have any impact on this so-called global warming. Vulcanos alone produce more CO2 than humans. And then you have oceans and dead plants in addition. Research shows that CO2 levels is dictated by the weather and its changes, not the other way around like we think. Yes the weather is changing, but it isn't because of humans and there's nothing we can do about it. Interestingly enough a lot of this has been discovered through sampling ice and snow in the arctic areas of the world.

Nevertheless, very interesting article, boring identity.
Christian A.

Christian A.,

I question the veracity of your statements, but encourage you to post scientific evidence that supports them. The contrary position, which is overwhelmingly supported by the scientific community, is encapsulated well at http://www.realclimate.org/index.php?p=97.

Jonathan Hoefler

Research doesn't come cheap. Think about what would be the catalyst for so many nations to fund up to 50,000 scientists?

Much of this I truly believe is about discovery, global citizenship and focusing attention on a relatively unexplored part of our planet. Though it is not surprising that a scramble for more knowledge is happening as countries are already lining up to claim drilling rights to the region. With global warming quickly clearing the ice, the area - believed to be the world's largest untapped oil reserve - will soon be open to exploitation. Everyone wants a piece (whether to protect or to exploit) and IPY hopefully will build a body of knowledge that will help defend what is left of the polar regions.
(reference http://www.guardian.co.uk/antarctic/story/0,,1755821,00.html, or many other such articles found via google)

I agree that a better identity (or at least better buy in for the existing identity across all involved) as well as a better articulation of the hierarchy of those involved would serve to make the whole project feel more organized and professional.

If anyone would like to participate, the IPY is looking for artists and writers.

"The purpose of the Antarctic Artists and Writers Program is to enable serious writings and works of art that exemplify the Antarctic heritage of humankind," noted a recent program description. "In particular, the program seeks to increase public understanding of the Antarctic region, including the continent and the surrounding oceans, as well as the associated research and education endeavors."

For more information, see the extended program description and application as a PDF. Deadline: June 6, 2007.

As a scientist who has studied in both the Arctic and Antarctic and as a daughter who has been convincing her graphically-inclined father to help the scientific community out, I truly appreciated this article. I'll be the first to admit we need all the design help we can get to package our powerful message.

(the climate change debate is over and I too endorse the realclimate.org site)

Thanks again for a great article.

Great post Bill. There has always been a disconnect between graphic design in the sciences and the incredible information visualizations that scientists generate, from electron microscopy to cartography. I take from your post a suggestion that scientific organizations -- especially public-spirited ones like this -- look to these beautiful artifacts as a way to inform more seductive and compelling graphics.
dmitri siegel

this may be the year of the hollow earth
a. byrd

Jobs | June 17