Looking back on the International Polar Year

researchers in Antarctica

The Norwegian-U.S. Traverse team disembarks from the LC-139 Hercules at the South Pole, on their way to a ten-week over land traverse of Dronning Maud Land in East Antarctica. The joint campaign, an International Polar Year (IPY) project, studied how climate variability relates to ice sheet mass and global sea level rise. —Credit: Ted Scambos, NSIDC

“In fifty years time the data resulting from IPY 2007-2008 may be seen as the most important single outcome of the programme.” —A Framework for the International Polar Year 2007-2008 (ICSU, 2004)

Past International Polar Years left exciting legacies for generations of scientists: the first synoptic polar observations, confirmation of the continental drift, unprecedented international cooperation, and even the foundations for the Antarctic Treaty. What will be the legacies of the 2007-2008 IPY?

Among those legacies are lessons on collaborative data management and data sharing for today’s highly interdisciplinary, data-intensive science. Whether data are images captured by satellites in space or the deep knowledge of indigenous hunters on the ground, IPY highlighted the need for changes in data management, and the potential to in turn support scientific progress. As a result, practices have evolved at data centers like NSIDC, and IPY continues to shape how the scientific community thinks about and plans for data management.

Open data and data policy

During a time of rapid polar change, IPY called for open data release on the “shortest feasible timescale,” to support the interdisciplinary collaboration that can lead to richer insights during an IPY. This data policy pushed the bounds of established practice, while recognizing ethical restrictions of data sharing, such as concerns about human subjects and fair attribution for data creators.

To maximize their value and reuse, public data should be made freely available in the public domain. This is a major focus of the Polar Information Commons, an ICSU project following on from IPY to establish an improved framework for polar data sharing and preservation. A central tenant of the PIC is that data should be as unrestricted as possible, but scientists need to establish norms of behavior that ensure proper, informed, and equitable data use.

From these concepts of timely data release and ethical data sharing, many nations imposed new, open-data conditions as part of IPY project funding requirements. The U.S. Arctic Observing Network (AON) was a leading example, requiring annual data deposit in a collaborative archive at NSIDC and the National Center for Atmospheric Research.

IPY also encouraged fair attribution for data creators by promoting formal data citation and providing data citation guidelines. NSIDC has continued this effort, and an evolved version of the IPY Guidelines has been adopted by both the Group on Earth Observations (GEO) and the Federation of Earth Science Information Partners (ESIP).

Many IPY data in some countries and disciplines remain unavailable, and much in the culture of science resists open and timely access. Nevertheless, IPY has fundamentally changed the conversation in polar science. No longer is it a question of whether to share data but rather when and how. Furthermore, it is clear that funding agencies have the ability to steer that conversation.

Developing infrastructure

One of the greatest lessons from IPY is that data management must be funded and planned in advance. Important developments in polar data infrastructure have occurred, but we are still playing catch up. Significant differences remain between Arctic and Antarctic data management, at both national and international levels. While the situation has improved, new polar research programs are still designed today without considering data sharing and archiving needs and their support. As a result, some of these data are at risk for becoming inaccessible, or lost to future researchers.

We also learned that different disciplines have different attitudes and norms of behavior around data sharing. They also have highly variable data infrastructures. Much more flexible and collaborative systems are needed, and science communities also need to recognize that the groundwork for sharing data between systems is laid at the time of data collection. It starts with using consistent protocols and measurement techniques within disciplines, which can, in turn, drive data formats. Designated “data coordinators” at the project and national level greatly facilitate this process.

On a more positive note, IPY led to the creation of many new national and discipline-based data centers. The U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) funded a new system to handle all the data from NSF-funded Arctic investigators, as a collaborative effort between NSIDC and the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR). Increasingly, data centers such as these are networked and share metadata and data through automated systems.

While IPY visions of integrated data systems are still a long ways off, some of the building blocks are coming into place. Furthermore, there is greater emphasis on data management in disciplines where it was previously lacking, such as Arctic biodiversity and local and traditional knowledge.

New collaborations

Perhaps the greatest outcome of IPY was the increase in international and interdisciplinary collaboration around data management. Repeatedly, data managers found how a pragmatic, flexible, and especially a collaborative approach can encourage change in science that enhances data flow and usefulness. NSIDC has increased its collaboration with data creators and data centers around the world as a result of IPY, helping to create more robust and useful data and to identify and spread best practices. We look forward to maintaining these collaborations with our new friends to ensure IPY data survive as the lasting legacy of IPY.


Parsons, M.A., T. de Bruin, S. Tomlinson, H. Campbell, Ø. Godøy, J. LeClert, and IPY Data Policy and Management Subcommittee. 2011a. The state of polar data—the IPY experience. In I. Krupnik, I. Allison, R. Bell, P. Cutler, D. Hik, J. López-Martínez, V. Rachold, E. Sarukhanian, and C. Summerhayes (eds.). Understanding Earth’s Polar Challenges: International Polar Year 2007-2008. Edmonton, Canada: CCI Press, 457-476. http://www.icsu.org/news-centre/publications/reports-and-reviews/ipy-summary

Parsons, M.A., Ø. Godøy, E. LeDrew, T.F. de Bruin, B. Danis, S. Tomlinson, and D. Carlson. 2011b. A conceptual framework for managing very diverse data for complex interdisciplinary science. Journal of Information Science 37(6):555-569. http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0165551511412705

Parsons, M.A., R. Duerr, and J.B. Minster. 2010. Data citation and peer-review. Eos, Transactions of the American Geophysical Union 91(34):297-98. http://dx.doi.org/10.1029/2010EO340001

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