Antarctic Ice with the Terra Nova Peak in the background. Ice is the canary in the coal mine for global warming. Photo: Bob McKerrow
As a young boy I used to enjoy listening to Radio New Zealand’s programme Antarctica Calling on a Sunday evening when all the New Zealander’s at Scott Base could talk to their families . Why was I so interested? Cherrie Martin was in my class at High Street School in Dunedin and she was the most beautiful girl in my class. And to elevate her status even higher, her Father was part of the New Zealand (IGY) International geophysical Year team and wintered over at Scott Base with none other than Sir Edmund Hillary, the leader in 1957-58. These were my heroes.
No one talked of global warming in those days.
Mountains that the New Zealand IGY team mapped and climbed some of the prominent peaks. Photo: Bob McKerrow
The 1957-58 International Geophysical Year (IGY) was highly successful.
Successes credited to IGY include the discoveries of the Van Allen radiation belts that surround the Earth, and the launch of Sputnik, the world's first artificial satellite, IGY was also said to be fundamental in establishing the Antarctic Treaty, an international agreement that designated the region as a continent for peace and science.
Eleven years later I was in Antarctica as a Scientific Technician carrying on the work the scientists of IGY started. I wintered over at Vanda station in the Wright Valley in 1970 with three other people doing scientific work; mainly meteorology, ice measurements on Lake Vanda, seismology and geomagnetics.
Gary Lewis assisting me to drill through the ice covering Lake Vanda in 1970, as part of a project. Photo: Bob McKerrow
I spent 13 months in Antarctica between Oct 1969 and Nove 1979 and the work we started. showed that changes were occuring in Antarctica's temperatures and the ice on Lake Vanda was ablating at an alarming rate. Also we witnessed the largest river in Antartica, the Onyx, which flowed into Lake Vanda, increasing in flow over two summers. We probably were some of the first to measure the beginning of global climate change.
In 1986 I joined Will Steger's International Polar Expedition. Here we are guiding sledge dogs across open leads on the Arctic Ocean en route to the North Pole. It was clear on our two Arctic expeditions in 1985 and 1986 we were seeing dramatic changes to the Arctic environment, but we didn't quite understand the full extent of it. Today Will Steger is one of the leading advocates for global warming in the Polar regions. Photo: Will Steger.
The head of the Wright valley looking across the expanse of Polar Plateau. Taken in 1970. Today, this glacier has shrunk dramatically as climate change takes its toll. Photo: Bob McKerrow
For the last two years, one of the largest international research programmes for 50 years has been focusing on the world's most remote regions - the Antarctic and Arctic.
IPY was officially launched in Paris on 1 March 2007, and will run until March 2009.
The International Polar Year (IPY) brings together thousands of scientists, from more than 60 nations, to participate in more than 200 projects.
And the issue at the top of the agenda is climate change.
"This is going to raise the profile of the issue of global warming among the international community," said Sir David King, the UK government's chief scientist at the opening.
"We know that what is happening to ice on the planet is a very clear indication of what is going to happen to the rest of us.
The first IPY, held in 1882-83, saw the world's first co-ordinated international expeditions to the polar regions.
Wildlife is under threat in both the Antarctic and Arctic regions. Photo: Bob McKerrow
In 1932-33, the second IPY led to 40 permanent observation stations being established in the Arctic.
Royal Society president Lord Rees, speaking to reporters, said the fourth IPY would build on scientists' current knowledge.
"Polar regions are clearly the focus of even more interest than they were 50 years ago when those of an older generation remember the previous International Geophysical Year.
"That is because of a number of reasons," Lord Rees explained. "They are the most pristine and least explored parts of the planet.
"Climate change is also more manifest here than anywhere else, and some of the best data on the climate comes from what we get from the ice cores."
Adele Penquin. Photo: Bob McKerrow
Cynan Ellis-Evans, head of the UK's IPY national committee, "The IPY is going to be taking this large number of nations and work together," he said. "One classic example is the Census of Antarctic Marine Life, involving 18 nations."
The project will investigate the distribution and abundance of marine biodiversity in the region, and aims to provide a benchmark against which future changes, including climatic shifts, can be measured.
"The whole of the Southern Ocean is going to be covered, and this sort of activity would never have been possible outside of the IPY," Dr Ellis-Evans added.
Walruses , Ellesmere Island. Photo: Bob McKerrowUnanswered questions
At the beginning of February, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published a summary of its Fourth Assessment Report, which showed that human activity was "very likely" to be causing climate change.
But it added that uncertainties still surrounded some of the projected impacts, such as sea level rise caused by melting ice-sheets.
One of the speakers at the launch in London said that the IPY would address these issues.
Eric Wolff, principal investigator for the British Antarctic Survey, used a musical analogy to make his point.
"Scientists study these things all the time but the way I like to think of it is that individual musicians sound interesting to listen to," Dr Wolff said.
"But it is only when you put them all together with a conductor in an orchestra that you start to hear something fantastic.
"And that is what the IPY is going to do; it will allow us to look at the whole in one go and get a snapshot."
Caribou on Baffin Island are under threat as their habitat is being drastically affected by changing climate. Photo: Bob McKerrow
Stirling University experts are currently working in the Arctic on a fact-finding mission to aid the fight against climate change.
Concerns have been raised that the high amount of carbon found in Arctic soils could be released into the atmosphere.
The University's Dr Philip Wookey, leading the Arctic team, is investigating the decomposition of organic matter in soil and how the process is affected by environmental change.
The Arctic Hare: Photo: Bob McKerrow
Dr Wookey said: "The polar regions are predicted to undergo the most rapid climatic changes as a result of the greenhouse effect, and the organisms that inhabit them may also be especially vulnerable to change.
"Another frequently ignored issue is that the Arctic stores enormous amounts of carbon in soils.
"There are real concerns that much of this carbon could end up in the atmosphere in the form of carbon dioxide and methane, which are both powerful greenhouse gases."
The International Polar Year has been launched by scientists across the world to address environmental concerns affecting the polar regions.
Polar bear numbers diminish as the ice cover on Arctic Ocean shrinks in size.
The loss of polar bears to be a "canary in the coal mine" signaling the need for stronger action on mitigating global warming.
This week has been an inspirational one for me.
Currently we have over 2000 Red Cross volunteers camped in West Java, Indonesia. Most of them are from Indonesia, with smaller numbers from China, Germany, Netherlands, Bangladesh, Hong Kong and Malaysia. It is a camp to learn and improve skills.
Apart from disaster response and first aid training, a lot of emphasis is being put on Climate Change which is becoming an integrated part of Red Cross programmes in many parts of the world.
Traveling by dogs on the Arctic Ocean. Photo: Bob McKerrow
Red Cross has its own Climate Centre in the Netherlands.
Disaster risk reduction tends to be cheaper and more efficient than emergency relief. Unfortunately, the lack of dramatic images causes disaster risk reduction to receive less media attention than disasters which require immediate relief, and thus disaster risk reduction programs attracts fewer sponsors. The resulting absence of funds seriously halts the development of local and regional disaster risk reduction programs, particularly in developing countries. Since there are few humanitarian organisations which prioritise disaster risk reduction to the extent the Red Cross/Red Crescent does, it is up to the Red Cross/Red Crescent to advocate the importance of disaster risk reduction to both the general public and policy-makers. The necessity of being prepared for climate change and extreme weather events constitutes an important additional argument in favour of this campaign.
How can you help the fight against global warming in the Polar regions, and the rest of the world ?
The RC/RC Climate Centre is part of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. The Climate Centre is not a government agency, but depends on donations to carry out its work.
You may donate either to the National Red Cross or Red Crescent Society in your country or to the RC/RC Climate Centre.
To make a contribution to your National Society, please contact them directly. Addresses and web sites can be found at Red Cross
My good friend of two polar expeditions, Will Steger, is one of the leading advocates on climate change in the Polar Regions (click here to read more).
The Will Steger Foundation has seen firsthand the dramatic effects of climate change on both the environment and the human condition through the efforts of its founder, Will Steger, who has explored the Polar Regions for 45 years. With that knowledge, WSF is leading humanity to slow climate change.
The Foundation seeks to inspire and be a catalyst for international environmental leadership to stop global warming through exploration, education and action.