UNITED NATIONS — Two years of intense polar research have shown declining snow and ice pack and rising seas, but they have also yielded abundant new data that might help scientists understand the overall effects of climate change and what to do about it, the U.N. World Meteorological Organization said today.

Summarizing results of those studies as the International Polar Year—a two-year, $1.2 billion initiative—draws to a close, officials say scientists know considerably more now about how Arctic and Antarctic changes are affecting weather patterns and the migration of pollutants.

The International Polar Year effort, spearheaded by WMO and the International Council for Science, is credited with vastly expanding our understanding of the extremes of Earth.

"The new evidence resulting from polar research will strengthen the scientific basis on which we build future actions," said WMO Secretary-General Michel Jarraud at the launch of the State of Polar Research report in Geneva.

Among other findings, researchers say they now have conclusive proof that the ice mass found on Antarctica and Greenland is diminishing, contributing to a worldwide rise in sea levels. The Arctic ice cap also shrunk to its smallest size over the summers of 2007 and 2008 since satellite record-keeping began.

Scientists also say that Arctic permafrost is melting, a worrying sign for officials committed to combating climate change. Results of polar research released just last week show that the average temperature of permafrost found in northern Russia has increased by 1 to 2 degrees Celsius over the past 35 years. The findings match an earlier study of Alaskan permafrost that discovered a temperature rise of about 0.5 to 2 degrees Celsius.

The vast swath of permafrost covering the Arctic Circle is known to hold massive quantities of organic material trapped beneath the permanently frozen ground. Scientists suspect that thawing permafrost will lead to much of this material decaying, releasing an enormous amount of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and exacerbating the greenhouse effect.

Officials say the two-year polar research and awareness effort has helped to improve scientific understanding of global weather patterns, as well.

Researchers have learned that the Arctic and Antarctic get much of their heat and moisture from storms originating in the North Atlantic. Tracking where and how this heat pump operates should help meteorologists and climatologists improve their weather forecasts.

Perhaps the biggest finding to come out of the International Polar Year, or IPY, initiative is the discovery that changes to Earth's climate and environment are happening much more rapidly than scientists working on the groundbreaking studies of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change initially suspected, officials say.

"IPY has provided a critical boost to polar research during a time in which the global environment is changing faster than ever in human history," WMO said. "Warming in the Antarctic is much more widespread than it was thought prior to IPY, and it now appears that the rate of ice loss from Greenland is increasing."

Much of the 160-plus separate studies began by more than 60 countries during the IPY endeavor will continue. Governments expanded or enhanced existing Arctic and Antarctic facilities to accommodate the research efforts, and a few new facilities were also built.

The Census of Marine Life, a separate 10-year global effort to catalog all known marine species by 2010, is also working closely with other Arctic and Antarctic researchers to learn what animals exist in the polar regions and how global fisheries could be affected by environmental changes.

Reprinted from Greenwire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net, 202-628-6500