Published online 31 December 2007 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2007.397

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Year of the what?

Nature News tracks who's celebrating their year in 2008.

Year of the frog: Kermit has signed up to support the goal of preventing the extinction of frog species.MARK STERKEL/AP/PA Photos

What will 2008 bring? Cheesy chips, perhaps, seeing as 2008 is officially the United Nation’s International Year of the Potato, and, at least in Greece, the Year of Feta.

The UN has also declared 2008 to be the International Year of Sanitation, the International Year of Planet Earth (which lasts for 3 years) and the International Year of Languages.

To get the UN to back a year of something takes a good deal of work and time. According to the UN’s procedure for the proclamation of international years, the subject for any such year must, among other things, be "of priority concern to all or the majority of countries" and it should "involve action at the international and national levels". In addition, "each international year should have objectives that are likely to lead to identifiable and practicable results".

The International Year of the Potato was suggested by Peru’s government at the Conference of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations in November 2005. Their support was thrown behind this crop not because it is in any sort of danger, but rather to highlight its usefulness as a resource. As the UN resolution states, the potato could have a role in alleviating world poverty. The potato, they claim, "produces more nutritious food more quickly, on less land, and in harsher climates than any other major crop".

The official year for the UN’s International Year of Planet Earth is 2008, but funding for it began in 2007 and will last until 2009. The aim of the year is to bring Earth scientists and their work more exposure, citing the 2004 Asian Tsunami as an example where more attention to Earth sciences in advance of the disaster might have meant fewer deaths.

The sanitation year was set up to raise awareness of the plight of some 41% of the world's population — at least 2.6 billion people — who don't have access to basic sanitation. One of the UN's Millennium Development Goals is to slice this number in half by 2015.

Easy being green

Outside the UN, declaring something to be the year of anything is pretty easy — it simply takes a decision from within, and some organizations prefer this approach (see Box). Aside from the UN’s four top picks, 2008 is also the Year of the Frog. “Largely our campaign is targeted at the zoo community,” says Kevin Zippel, program director for Amphibian Ark, the international conservation organization behind this year. Because of this target audience, the perceived wider reach of the UN was unnecessary for their campaign.

Amphibian Ark has highlighted 500 frog species threatened with extinction. The year of the frog campaign is aiming to raise $50 million to try to save them — a huge job. “We have pretty lofty goals,” says Zippel, adding that the year will be a success even if just one of those 500 species is saved.

Zippel thinks the wider populous isn’t so blinkered that it only sees UN-backed campaigns as credible. Celebrity helps raise profiles, he says, and The Year of the Frog has Sir David Attenborough as its patron. The campaign also has Kermit the Frog's backing, he says.

From ocean floors to the stars

The International Coral Reef Initiative has announced that 2008 will be their second International Year of the Reef (IYOR). But they, too, are going ahead without UN endorsement. “It’s non-formal and we want to leave it this way,” says Francis Staub, IYOR coordinator, who is based in Bethesda, Maryland. “We are not interested in being an official UN year.” The reef year aims to raise awareness of coral reefs, and their importance in the world’s ecosystems. By keeping the year unaffiliated, those countries involved are free to coordinate whatever activities they like, says Staub.

Other self-proclaimed years include Virgin Galactic’s recently mooted, and unofficial, Year of the Spaceship — which comes as a number of private attempts to commercialize spaceflight are getting closer to reality.

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There is also a growing trend to make a year last longer than 12 months. Dolphins, who had their share of attention in 2007, have had their UN-backed year extended into 2008, and International Polar Year, which also began in 2007, will run until March 2009.

Meanwhile, in Greece, 2008 will be a year of campaigning to keep feta cheese Greek; in Australia the year will all be about scouts — boy scouts, that is — and also about engineering teams; in Cheshire, England, 2008 is the year of gardens; and the EU has declared 2008 the European Year of Intercultural Dialogue. Looking ahead, in late December 2007, the UN declared 2009 as the International Year of Astronomy. 

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