Friday :: Jul 11, 2008

on the road with acronyms


by Christina Hulbe

I am writing this in the lounge of the Hotel Pribaltiyskaya, a simultaneously lumbering and upscale Soviet-era hotel on Vasilyevsky Island in Saint Petersburg, Russia. I'm here for the 30th meeting of the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR) and the associated Open Science Conference, this year organized in conjunction with the International Arctic Science Committee (IASC. I'm here as a US representative to SCAR, in the Standing Scientific Group on Physical Sciences and to participate in the science conference. There are round about 1600 people here for this unique Antarctic/Arctic science conference (fewer for the earlier SSG meetings), simply huge.

SCAR is an NGO that forms an inter-disciplinary committee of the International Council for Science (ICSU). Our charge is to help initiate, promote, and coordinate international scientific activities in the Antarctic; to review scientific issues involving the Antarctic environment; and to provide advice to the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting. Bet you never imagined there could be so much bureaucracy in science. Oh yes there is, and a raft of acronyms to go along with it. This all may be a bit more intense in the Antarctic than elsewhere because international activities on the continent are governed by the Antarctic Treaty System.

It's a tolerable bureaucracy though because SCAR really does promote best practices and frontier science. In the physical sciences, we are proud right now of the success of ICESTAR (Interhemispheric Conjugacy Effects in Solar-Terrestrial and Aeronomy Research), a Scientific Research Project seeded a few years ago with modest funding from SCAR. That support allowed an international group of scientists with some really good ideas to work together, prove they could generate meaningful results, and secure funding from national agencies to continue their research. Now our scientific program is turning its outward-looking attention to a new endeavor, Astronomy from Antarctica (a dry atmosphere with low turbulence is good for sub-millimeter astronomy, conditions found on the high plateau of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet).

Another research group that comes out of the Physical Sciences SSG is Antarctica and the Global Climate System (AGCS). The AGCS Newsletter offers a nice overview of the science (the most recent issue here). Members of that group, in consultation with a broad swath of the Antarctic community, are writing an Antarctic equivalent of the 2004 Arctic Climate Impact Assessment (with considerably less funding than what was available for the ACIA). More on that when it comes out. I could go on but I hope this gives a flavor of what we do.

On the science conference side, I was here to give a talk about how glaciers that once flowed into the Larsen B ice shelf on the Antarctic Peninsula are responding to its March 2002 collapse (NASA story) and to listen to as many other talks as I can manage. The glacier response is not quite as simple as portrayed in that NASA story, that's what I'm here to discuss (I have a paper coming out soon on this but in brief: there are a range of responses, which is a good thing because that means we can really get at the underlying physics).

Perhaps the most interesting talk I attended was in a session on Polar Biology, given by Peter Convey, a research scientist at the British Antarctic Survey. In a nutshell, the degree of uniqueness in Antarctic terrestrial organisms (mites, worms, lichens, mosses, and so on) suggests that these organisms have been on the continent far longer than allowed by the current reconstructions of past ice sheet extent (larger than at present during past glacial maxima). This kind of evidence will lead paeloclimatologists and glaciologists rethinking those reconstructions.

There was an evening session on women in the Antarctic but I was at the ballet that night. So it goes.

Meetings like this are very rich petri dishes. People working in different research areas can learn about each other's work and talk, at leisure, across the typical disciplinary boundaries. We are all mindful of the costs associated with such travel but we haven't yet come up with a substitute for interacting in person in this way. Maybe at some point we will, probably at some point we will have to (and we are all mindful of this as well).

Christina Hulbe :: 11:00 PM :: Comments (6) :: Spotlight :: Digg It!