UA hires new scientists for Polar Year

Postdoctoral fellows will research global warming

Posted: Tuesday, September 05, 2006

ANCHORAGE - The University of Alaska is getting a jump-start on the International Polar Year by hiring a baker's dozen of budding scientists.

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UA President Mark Hamilton announced Thursday in Fairbanks that the institution has hired 13 postdoctoral fellows at a cost of $3 million. They will spend three years at UA campuses researching northern topics, with an emphasis on change related to global warming and development in polar regions.

"Hiring these researchers demonstrates a tremendous investment on the part of UA," Hamilton said. "These people represent the best of the best in young scientists from across the world. It's very appropriate that they have chosen to conduct their research here, since we are a significant player in this arena."

The International Polar Year, which actually covers two years, is declared every 50 years. The first was in 1882-83.

The last was in 1957-58 and was called the International Geophysical Year. It involved 80,000 scientists from 67 countries, according to the IPY Web site. The next one begins in March and runs through March 2009.

The university received 180 applications from young scientists in 26 countries, Hamilton said. They were selected from fields in which the university has demonstrated excellence, he said.

Craig Dorman, UA vice president for research and academic affairs, said postdoctoral positions help young scientists make the transition from higher education to the competitive research world. The 13 scientists will be paired with UA mentors.

According to the IPY Web site, the three fastest warming regions on the planet in the last two decades have been Alaska, Siberia and parts of the Antarctic Peninsula.

Buck Sharpton, vice chancellor for research at UA Fairbanks, said northern regions are especially sensitive to climate change. A 1-degree change might not even be noticed in Texas, he said.

"If you look at an area like the Arctic, where the average temperature is hovering somewhere around the freezing point of water, then you're actually changing the state, the type of water that you have, from ice to liquid," Sharpton said. "So it has a fundament change up here."

Northern ecosystems also react more quickly to change, he said.

"Our ecosystems here are so tightly tuned because of the drastic temperature conditions that that they exist in, there's not a lot of resilience built into the system," he said. "They tend to collapse very easily compared to the tropics."

Each researcher will receive a $50,000 annual salary, faculty benefits and a travel allowance of $5,000.

The money to pay for the researchers comes from the BP and ConocoPhillips charter donations to UA as part of merger agreements. The charter agreement was reached in 1999 between the state of Alaska under former Gov. Tony Knowles and BP and Arco, later ConocoPhillips. It includes a formula for charitable contributions to UA and other community organizations.

Donations to the university since the state and oil companies signed the agreement total $23 million to date.

More than 300 institutions from 38 different countries are expected to participate in the next International Polar Year. Of the 208 clusters of projects endorsed by the IPY International Programme Office, 28 percent have participation from the University of Alaska system, according to the university.

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