The largest challenge facing humankind is the management of the Earth System to ensure a sustainable future. To this end, understanding of the functioning of the Earth System in the context of both natural and anthropogenic change is essential. The polar habitats and their biota are an instrumental part of the Earth System, not only influencing the pace and nature of environmental change, but also responding to it in an integrated system of biologically modulated connections.
The Antarctic offers an immensely valuable, regionally focussed approach. Its ecosystems offer examples of how both structure and function have evolved (the history of the notothenioid radiation was successfully investigated by the Network on the Biology of Antarctic Fishes, funded in 1994-1997 by the European Science Foundation), and the likely responses of species and ecosystems to change induced by a wide variety of natural and anthropogenic processes, as well as the ways in which their responses feed back to influence these processes.
In 2004 the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR), fully aware of the problems inherent to climate change, launched the 8-year international programme "Evolution and Biodiversity in the Antarctic: the Response of Life to Change'' (EBA). It integrates research across a wide variety of fields, from functional genomics and molecular systematics to ecosystem science and modelling, and draws on and contributes information to a wide rage of related fields, such as climate modelling and tectonics. Its major intention is to provide a platform for interactions amongst disciplines and researchers that are essential to understand the role of biodiversity in the Earth System and its responses to change, by offering the Antarctic context, and establishing crosslinks with the Arctic, enhancing our ability to achieve a sustainable future for all life. EBA will provide SCAR and the international scientific community with the best possible estimate of the consequences for the Antarctic of continued environmental change.
Together with another international programme that highlights the importance of the sub-Antarctic, named ''International Collaborative Expedition to collect and study Fish Indigenous to Sub-Antarctic Habitats'' (ICEFISH), EBA has been selected by ICSU/WMO (International Council for Science of UNESCO/World Meteorological Organisation) as potential ''Lead Project'' for the International Polar Year (IPY 20072008). IPY will take place half a century after the International Geophysical Year (IGY, 1957-8), to which we owe countless outstanding milestones of Polar Science. Such event is timely, given the increasing concerns expressed by the Antarctic Treaty System regarding the responses of Antarctic environments to natural and anthropogenic disturbances, and the request for information regarding ways in which these responses can be distinguished and mitigated to ensure long-term conservation of Antarctic environments and their biodiversity.
New information, including the choice of suitable target species, long-term data sets and the concerted efforts from international multidisci-plinary programmes, will help us to identify the responses of vulnerable species and habitats to climate change. This preliminary step is required to establish efficient strategies aimed at neutralising threats to biodiversity: in particular, before they become hopelessly irreversible, those which are essentially driven by anthropogenic contributions.
It will not be an easy task, but in the fertile scenario of polar research this demanding challenge is well worth to be pursued.
Acknowledgements Support from the Italian National Programme for Antarctic Research (PNRA) is gratefully acknowledged. We thank A. Clarke for patiently reading the manuscript and providing useful advice. The comments and suggestions of two reviewers have greatly improved the paper. The fundamental role of the Steering Committees of the SCAR Programmes Ecology of the Antarctic Sea-Ice Zone (EASIZ), Evolutionary Biology of Antarctic Organisms (EVOLAN-TA) and Regional Sensitivity to Climate Change in Antarctic Terrestrial Ecosystems (RiSCC) in launching the new IPY-endorsed Programme ''Evolution and Biodiversity in the Antarctic: the Response of Life to Change'' (EBA), is highlighted.Biodiversity in the Antarctic: the Response of Life to Change'' (EBA), is highlighted.
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