Scientists watch polar areas for changes

Are we really heading for an ice-free Arctic? More than 50,000 researchers hope to find an answer during a massive study of how global warming and other phenomena are changing the coldest parts of the Earth - and what that means for the rest of it.

Scientists formally kicked off the International Polar Year on Thursday, the biggest such project in 50 years. It is unifying researchers from 63 nations in 228 studies to monitor the health of the polar regions, using icebreakers, satellites and submarines. The project ends in March 2009.

Schoolchildren in Oslo, Norway, many with signs that said "Give us back winter" or "We want snow," built snowmen on the City Hall square to mark Thursday's launch.

The director of the Norwegian Polar Institute described seeing glaciers melt at an accelerated rate in recent years at his Arctic outpost of Ny-Alesund.

The polar year is important because it is "pooling the resources of many countries in a coordinated effort to solve a major scientific problem of our time," Kim Holmen said by telephone.

Global warming "is the most important challenge we face in this century," Prince Albert II of Monaco said in launching the project in Paris. "The hour is no longer for skepticism. It is time to act, and act urgently."