Introduction

The polar regions play key roles in global climate change and have profoundly affected environments during the Cenozoic, influencing sea levels, atmospheric composition and dynamics, and ocean circulation. Starting from the end of the nineteenth century, several major internationally

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coordinated explorations of the polar regions have taken place, which have improved our understanding of them and how they influence the world. The most prominent periods of exploration were: the first International Polar Year (IPY) of 1882-1883 (e.g. Heathcote and Armitage, 1959; Wood and Overland, 2006), the so-called Heroic Age of polar exploration, stimulated by the International Geographical Congress of 1895, which had made Antarctica a target, the second IPY (1932-1933) (e.g. Gerson 1958) and the International Geophysical Year (IGY) of 1957-1958 (e.g. Buedeler, 1957; Korsmo, 2007), later extended to include 1959 and which started life as the third IPY. These were major initiatives that involved an intense period of multidisciplinary polar research bringing significant new insights into global processes and laying the foundation of knowledge of the polar regions for future decades.

The first two IPYs and the IGY involved an increasing number of countries and scientists, and produced unprecedented levels of knowledge and understanding in many fields of research. The 12 countries of the first IPY grew to 67 in the IGY, in which some 5,000 scientists and support staff were engaged in Antarctica alone. They not only changed the way science was conducted in the polar regions, from single nation programmes to complex multinational collaborations, they also standardised measurements, made data freely available to all and initiated the system of World Data Centers.

The fourth IPY, 2007-2009 (Allison et al., 2007), is one of the largest collaborative science programs ever attempted. It continues the tradition of international science years, includes multidisciplinary research operating in both polar regions, and involves some 50,000 participants from 63 countries. A wide range of scientific problems will be addressed, including issues related to society. It differs from the three previous IPYs in that it includes all natural science disciplines - not just physics and geophysics, it incorporates the social sciences, and it includes a wide range of education and outreach activities aimed at attracting the next generation of polar scientists and engaging the attention of the public and policy makers. In this chapter, we discuss briefly the history of the polar years, and their contribution to comprehending Antarctic Climate Evolution (ACE).

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