This month, a small group of scientists will meet in Ny-Alesund, Svalbard, the northernmost community in the world. (Year-round population: 30.) There, among Norwegian fiords, less than 800 miles from the North Pole, the scientists will drill through several feet of ice to make a hole about four feet across. Then they will put on dry suits and scuba gear and dive into the clear, frigid waters of the Arctic.
People around the world know the Smithsonian for its fascinating museums and vast collections. Residents of Svalbard also know the Institution for this biannual ice-diving course. In fact, for the past 16 years, the Smithsonian has been familiarizing scientists with the latest diving technologies and equipment, and training them to safely conduct their important research in the most extreme and unforgiving environments of both the Arctic and Antarctic regions.
The activities in Svalbard—both the ice-diving course and a concurrent academic workshop, also hosted by the Smithsonian along with its partners at the National Science Foundation—will no doubt be a hot topic in the warmer environs of springtime Washington, D.C. In early May, as part of the massive scientific program called International Polar Year, or IPY, Smithsonian's Under Secretary for Science, David Evans, will host a two-day symposium: "Smithsonian at the Poles: Contributions to International Polar Year Science." (Occurring roughly every 50 years, this is the fourth IPY.)
Although the ice-diving program is relatively recent, Smithsonian polar science goes back 150 years, resulting in some of the world's foremost collections of Arctic and Antarctic materials. Scholars across many of the Institution's museums and scientific centers continue to carry out cutting-edge research. The symposium will bring together these and other renowned scholars and their collaborators in Arctic and Antarctic research, who will give special attention to the global impact of warming trends and to the changes in polar systems past, present and future.
One session will be dedicated to the National Museum of Natural History's cataloging and lending of its 900,000-strong Antarctic invertebrate collection. Another will focus on the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center's work on the impact to an ecosystem when significant changes to snow and ice sheets introduce new species and displace others. Still another session will discuss the Smithsonian, NASA and NSF program that collects, cares for and stores the more than 12,000 meteorites—from the moon, Mars and places unknown—recovered from Antarctic ice sheets.
Whether the subject is astrophysics or anthropology, the symposium promises to be an extraordinary scienific meeting—one that takes place at a critical time and may even change the way we look at our planet. That has certainly been the mark of previous International Polar Years. In fact, next fall the National Air and Space Museum will host another conference dedicated solely to the historical significance of past IPYs.
Participants will no doubt recall James Van Allen, the scientist credited with discovering the earth's radiation belts that now bear his name. Sitting in his living room in Silver Spring, Maryland, in 1950, Van Allen and about ten friends decided to revive the idea of IPY, concentrating on earth and space sciences and calling it the International Geophysical Year. It was held in 1957-58, and many say it prompted the Soviet Union to launch Sputnik. The space race was on. IPY, in many ways, was the starting line.
So what will be the legacy of the International Polar Year starting this month? No one knows. But you can bet your swim fins the Smithsonian will be a part of it.