One hot day in June

India woke up to a phone call

Published: Monday 30 June 2003

One hot day in June

Sole Indian presence: Maitri<s (Credit: Courtesy: Geological Survey of)On a hot June day in 1981 S Z Qasim, then environment secretary, reached out to answer a telephone. The caller was Indira Gandhi, the prime minister. The conversation was brief and to the point. "Can India reach Antarctica?" asked the prime minister. Qasim, who had only an academic knowledge of the continent in question, replied in the affirmative. A few months later, he found himself at the helm of a 21-member team, the first from this part of the world, on its way to Antarctica. Keen to avoid brickbats in case the expedition collapsed, but also as shrewd strategy, the government shrouded the project in secrecy. The expedition quietly embarked from Goa on December 6, 1981, floundered in the impenetrable pack ice that surrounds Antarctica, and finally landed on the coast after three botched attempts.

Since then, Indian researchers have set foot on Antarctica 24 times, spent more than 70 days on its icy expanse, and frozen away approximately Rs 25 crore in just per-expedition costs. All kinds of scientists flock to 'The Ice' on the ice-breaker that leaves Indian shores every December to return in March-April. Since 1983-84, some members of the expedition team have been staying back in winter for experiments. Given this repetitive routine for more than 20 years now, it is time to take stock: what direction has our Antarctica research taken in these years? What has been its dnouement? What are the problems and inconsistencies that clog our research efforts? And what, if any, are the solutions? To begin answering these questions, we must ask ourselves another question: why Antarctica, of all places?

The answer comes from P C Pandey, director of the Goa-based National Centre for Antarctic and Ocean Research (NCAOR). "When we started the Antarctica programme, the geopolitical question was certainly in the back of our minds, he says. Like all other nations in the fray, India did not want to be left out in the event of Antarctic resources coming up for grabs. Science followed: research was a way of maximising returns from the expedition investment. And Antarctica offered a proven rich laboratory. Says Geological Survey of India's (GSI) Anil Joshi, who has been to the continent twice: "Anything in Antarctica is like a unit preserved in ideal conditions." Points out Vinod Gaur, former secretary, department of ocean development (DOD): "The real reward of studying Antarctica is that it allows you to document baseline data, which is seminal for pushing up the limits of scientific research in any country." According to Pandey, understanding Antarctica's atmosphere seas and cryosphere could help India improve its climate prediction capabilities substantially.

Given that the endeavour is now 22 expeditions old, the question may be asked: what has Indian research in Antarctica achieved?

PLATE TECTONICS: As breakaway parts of Gondwanaland, Antarctica and India have a lot in common. In fact, the rocks found in Antarctica's Schirmarcher Oasis (garnet-biotite gneisses, augen gneisses and quartzo-feldspathic gneisses) have been discovered to be similar in overall composition to those found in the granulite terrains of the Eastern Ghats and the khondalite belt of Kerala. Antarctica holds the key to how, why and when the Gondwana landmass disintegrated. For India, this is of critical importance: as the Indian subcontinent moved away, it began colliding with the Eurasian plate resulting in the creation of the Himalayas. By studying and comparing the plate movements of India and Antarctica, Indian researchers are hoping to improve their knowledge of geological phenomena such as earthquakes. It can also give deeper insights to the response of the Indian Ocean floor near the east coast of India to such plate-driving mechanisms and help assess mineral resources and hydrocarbons.

More importantly, a better understanding of East Antarctic geology could provide clues on a recent postulation that the Indian plate is a composite of four independent blocks which got welded together between 1600 and 500 million years ago. This theory, advanced by a team of earth scientists from GSI and Birbal Sahni Institute of Palaeobotany, Lucknow, is believed to be in a position to explain earthquake enigmas in central regions of India, long considered stable.

GEOLOGICAL MAPPING: Geological mapping of the Antarctic terrain has been the focus of Indian geological studies in the continent. Till 2003, GSI had mapped 190 square km (from 15E to 6E longitude) on a scale of 1:500 and collected 2200 rock samples. The mapped areas have included the central Dronning Maud Land or cDML (the first-ever mapping of the region)the Schirmarcher Oasis and several sectors in the Wohlthat mountain chain. As a result of this, GSI published the first regional map of the Schirmarcher-Wohl area in 1991. Lying closer to India's east coast, the topography and rocks studied have helped scientists understand the links between Antarctica and India.

MAGNETIC AND GRAVITY SURVEYS: Scientists from the National Geophysical Research Institute (NGRI), Hyderabad have conducted magnetic and gravity surveys in and around the Maitri station using indigenous gadgets. Essential for observing the earth's magnetic field and understanding local geology, these surveys included the first-ever helicopter-borne magnetic survey (by any country) during India's seventh expedition and an aerial gravity survey in the ninth. The first survey mapped the magnetic intensity over 100 square km between the Schirmarcher Oasis and the Wohlthat mountains and yielded, for the first time, the sub-glacial topography of the region. Helicopter-borne magnetic surveys are difficult exercises as 'electromagnetic noise' from the engine can affect the accuracy of the data. India, in fact, is the first country to have developed low-cost helicopter-borne magnetic survey equipment. NGRI has also set up a seismic station which records seismic activities in CDML and exchanges data with other nations.

ICE CORE STUDIES: India has made a modest start in another significant area of research in Antarctica, the study of the continent's ice cores. GSI drills the cylindrical cores out of Antarctica's ice sheet: these cores, frozen archives which trap and hold atmospheric gases, can help them take a look at climatic records of the last 5000 years. Scientists believe that such ice cores can point to trends in global industrial pollution, climate change and ozone depletion; and eventually help devise ways to arrest them. The project, however, has been largely hamstrung by lack of infrastructural support: Indian researchers have to use their trucks as cover in fierce blizzards, while other nations have built well-sheltered complexes around their drilling sites. As a result, India has managed to raise only 220 m of ice cores compared to 3.62 km raised by Russia-France-US' collaborative efforts at Vostok. The NCAOR is currently setting up a low temperature laboratory at Goa to preserve and analyse ice cores.

GLACIAL STUDIES: Scientists believe the study of ice cores could also help them understand Himalayan glaciers. Glaciers in the Himalayas, much smaller than huge continental ice shelves in Antarcticaremain snow-covered round the year. According to S Z Qasim"A comparison between the Himalayan glaciers and those in Antarctica will provide the former's geological history. Hence, the studies on Antarctic glaciers can throw light on the differential nature of weather and climate of the two geographically distant zones.

Despite being the lifeline of the Indian economy (as the feeder of all the rivers in the gangetic plains)Himalayan glaciers are little understood. Even meteorologists admit the influence of Himalayan glaciers on the all-important weather phenomenonthe south-west monsoonis yet to be comprehended completely. Will Antarctica help solve their mystery?

AURORAL AND GEOSPACE STUDIES: The earth's polar regions are uniquely suited for the study of geospace -- critical to analyse what is called 'space weather'. Geomagnetic field lines emanating from the poles act like conducting wires for most of the electrical and magnetic fields and particle energy from the sun. Which means electromagnetic conditions in distant space can be mapped right down to the earth's atmosphere. The earth's auroral region, lying between 65 and 75 geomagnetic latitudes, is the area where this direct transfer of solar energy particles into the earth's near atmosphere occurs. Maitri, on the fringes of the auroral oval (a band of latitudes over which the geomagnetic activity occurs), is ideally placed to conduct auroral and geospace studies. The results can augment weather forecasting and space exploration capabilities.

Scientists from the Indian Institute of Geomagnetism (IIG) Mumbai, have been studying the aurora australis (aurora in the southern hemisphere). According to former IIG scientist and Antarctica veteran Girija Rajaram, India has made rapid strides in geomagnetism studies during 1992-2001 by increasing the number of experiments in Antarctica from one to six. India was the only country in Antarctica to operate a Fluxgate Magnetometer Triangulation Experiment to estimate the velocities of drifting auroral current systems over Maitri. This experiment established the suitability of Maitri's location for assessing space weather.

OZONE STUDIES: In 1985, a chance discovery of the 'ozone hole' over Antarctica by Britain's Joe Farman precipitated interest in the continent. Interestingly, India had commenced its ozone studies in Antarctica at least three years before Farman discovered the ozone hole. According to C R Sreedharan, former deputy director general of the India Meteorological Department (IMD) and the first Indian scientist to conduct ozone-related studies in Antarctica, the first Indian balloon-borne ozone-sonde, an equipment used for measuring vertical distribution of ozone, was sent up during the 1982-83 expedition. Five years later, Indian scientists installed a Dobson's spectrophotometer, a sophisticated equipment which can quantify total ozone over an area.

India's early start in Antarctic ozone studies was due to the pioneering work by two scientists - K R Ramanathan, internationally known as 'Mr Ozone' and Anna Mani, who was instrumental in setting up a chain of Dobson's spectrophotometer observatories across the country. The New Delhi-based National Physical Laboratory has built on this (see box: The laser heterodyne system).

STUDY OF MICROORGANISMS: Molecular scientists and microbiologists from the Hyderabad-based Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB) led by the centre's deputy director S Shivaji discovered 20 species of bacteria and other lower-order organisms. Some of these have been categorised and their metabolic activities at sub-zero temperatures recorded. One of the species, able to break down human faeces, has been tested for use in Siachen. The CCMB team has also developed a number of industrial technologies which could make use of many characteristics of these organisms. For example, says Shivaji, there are bacteria that can help in fermentation at room temperatures, thus negating the need for extra heat and saving on energy.

STUDY OF LICHENS: The National Botanical Research Institute (NBRI), Lucknow, has concentrated on studying lichens, composite plants made up of fungi and algae. Sensitive to pollution, lichens can accumulate chemical pollutants and act as indicators of pollution in a particular area. "We have been monitoring heavy metal pollution by gathering lichens from nunataks (rocky outcrops) in the Schirmarcher Oasis every five years, says D K Upreti, who heads the lichenology laboratory at NBRI. According to an NBRI analysis, lichen samples collected from around the Russian station Novalazarevskaya revealed lead accumulation in them, while those from around Maitri were free of polluting heavy metals. The NBRI, jointly with the Birbal Sahni Institute of Palaeobotany, is analysing pollen spores trapped in lichen cushions to get an idea of the affinities of Antarctic biota with that of other nations'. Also, it has recently entered into collaboration with the St Petersburg (Russia)-based Komrev Botanical Institute to expand its studies.

PSYCHOLOGICAL ADAPTATION STUDIES: Scientists from the Defence Research and Development Organisation and the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, New Delhi have conducted studies to understand the impacts of the extremely harsh Antarctic environment on Indian researchers working on the continent: changes in body weight, skin-fold thickness, heart rate, blood pressure, oral temperature, respiratory rate, basal metabolic rate, cold pressure response and physical fitness of wintering team members. Studies found that conditions in Antarctica completely disrupted the circadian rhythm -- the regular pattern of secretion of thyroid-stimulating hormones by the pituitary gland -- in the researchers' bodies. This led to some very unusual psychosomatic behaviour.

Understanding how people behave in such hostile conditions is perceived to be of strategic importance to Indiaas it can help experts reach into the minds of Indian soldiers manning borders with China and Pakistanliving in extreme cold conditions and isolation from their families.

METEOROLOGICAL STUDIES: Antarctica and the waters that surround it are the primary regulators of global climate. For instance, by feeding the Indian Ocean, the Antarctic Ocean is instrumental in influencing tropical monsoons. Scientists from the IMD, therefore, have been an integral part of all Indian expeditions to the continent. Baseline data collected by them over the years, they claim, can prove vital in future monsoons predictions.

Another issue of significant interest for researchers has been the impact of flowing ice streams in West Antarctica on global sea levels. (unlike the Arctic, where most of the ice is formed over water and therefore is already floating, most Antarctic ice is formed over land. Any portion of Antarctic ice sheets that begins to float increases the volume of the oceans and raises their level) According to Sridhar Anandkrishnana Pennsylvania State University geophysicist, who has been studying Antarctica as a part of the US Antarctica Programmea complete meltdown in the west would raise sea levels by about six metres. (India currently does not have a presence in West Antarctica. But it is planning an additional station in Antarctica, which may or may not be in West Antarctica.)

At first glance then, Indian research in Antarctica does seem formidable in its scale and scope: an assumption that receives ready support from scientist-bureaucrats such as Qasim. But how true and reliable is this assumption?

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