The planet’s polar regions are home to almost four million people and teem with animals, plant life and abundant resources. They are also, of course, integral to the health of the Earth’s environment.

The impact of rapid melting in the continent-sized ice sheets covering the poles’ surfaces isn’t limited to local communities — it is being felt around the globe.

“Changes we’re seeing in the North indicate what we’ll need to deal with further south in the very near future,” says David Hik, executive director of the Canadian International Polar Year (IPY) Secretariat and a Canada Research Chair in northern ecology at the University of Alberta.

Yet, the poles are remote places that scientists can only reach by air or sea, leading to limited research there. The IPY in 2007-08, organized by the International Council for Science and the World Meteorological Organization, sought to change that. Pooling the intellectual resources of researchers from more than 60 nations, it brought them to the Arctic and Antarctica to broaden and advance our knowledge of these global climate barometers.

Canada focused its attention on our nation’s final frontier, and the resulting Arctic explorations flowed from research collected during three previous IPYs in 1882-83, 1932-33 and 1957-58. By comparing data collected in the past with environmental conditions today, scientists will be able to more clearly chart our planet’s future.

However, IPY’s vision not only involved scientists and researchers, but Northern community leaders and Inuit elders. “Without meaning to the people living in these environments or connecting this research back to issues of social and cultural importance,” says Hik, “IPY doesn’t have the same importance.”

With its focus on global linkages and human communities, the 2007-08 IPY went beyond the geosciences to raise awareness of what the changing environment means for people worldwide. Now the legacy it leaves is up to us.

More on International Polar Year

Yukon’s Kluane Lake Research Station: Icefields of dreams — For five decades, scientists have flocked to a research camp in the Yukon to study the surrounding mountains and glaciers. The food and showers are hot, the camaraderie is contagious and the possibilities for discovery are endless.

Northern checkup — The largest study on Inuit health in Canada takes the pulse of a people afflicted with illnesses uncommon — until recently — in the North

The case of the missing mercury — In springtime, something strange happens in the Arctic atmosphere. Canadian scientists follow the chemical clues

The cryosphere kid — Robert Way wants to probe the permafrost and glaciers of his native Labrador, but already, at age 20, he’s thinking globally

Arcticology — Arcticology Science research in the North is inextricably tied to economic development, environmental protection, security and sovereignty. So why don’t we have a long-term Arctic science strategy?

IPY around the world

View an interactive chart with links to all IPY projects.