Next year, thousands of scientists from around the world will begin the most intensive period of research on the polar regions in half a century. International Polar Year (IPY) aims to provide a legacy of research into key environmental issues facing the Earth.

Those involved hope its progress will generate as much public interest as the 1969 Moon landings.

The last such initiative, in 1957, provided the foundation for much of the polar science knowledge we have today.

"Those old enough to remember will recall that the International Geophysical Year was not only a huge scientific enterprise with fantastically important outcomes, both scientific and geopolitical, but it also had huge penetration into the public consciousness," said Professor Chris Rapley, director of the British Antarctic Survey, which is involved in IPY. The International Geophysical Year saw the first satellite, Sputnik, launched into space, established the thickness of the Antarctic ice sheet, and paved the way for the Antarctic Treaty, designating Antarctica a zone for peace and science.