Reaching the final frontier

Published : Nov 07, 2003 00:00 IST

Maitri, India's permanent research station in Antarctica. - BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Maitri, India's permanent research station in Antarctica. - BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

India's exploratory campaign in Antarctica is spearheaded by the Goa-based NCAOR, which has come up with many research programmes to study the continent and its possible relevance to India.

UNTIL about a 100 years ago, the icy, uninhabited continent of Antarctica was hardly appreciated for what it is - an inexhaustible repository of scientific and environmental knowledge, and enormous natural and economic resources - by scientists and explorers alike. Even cartographers chose to ignore its presence. Its only human visitors were whalers and seafarers. Early explorations, driven more by curiosity than by any hope of unlocking the vast continent's (almost five times the size of India) scientific secrets, began in the early 20th century. But these were restricted to its fringes, since few explorers had either the wherewithal or the luck to chart a course through the unique flat-topped icebergs and break through the icy southern ocean waters to reach the rocky islands south of the Antarctic Circle between 900 south and 00 east that make up the frozen continent. The temperatures rarely go above 00 Celsius here.

That is how it was right until 1956-57 - the International Geophysical Year - when a coalition of 66 nations came together and chose Antarctica as an outpost for conducting geophysical and atmospheric research. Twelve of these countries - the erstwhile Soviet Union, the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Japan, Australia, Argentina, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa, Chile and Belgium - established more than 40 bases on the continent and another 20 on sub-Antarctic islands. And though today scientists from 27 countries (including India) stay and work in permanent and temporary stations on the earth's southernmost continent, it is still the planet's final frontier.

Antarctica and its surrounding stormy waters are as pristine, unique and majestic as they are dry, harsh and bleak. The continent is the iciest, coldest (the lowest temperature ever recorded being -890 Celsius) and driest place on earth (rainfall is almost nil, even less than in the Sahara desert). Almost 98 per cent of its total area of 14 million square kilometres in summer (it doubles in size in winter owing to the ice that forms around the continent) is covered by ice, that is, on an average 2.3 km thick (4 km thick in some places). Winds whistling at a speed of up to 300 km an hour and blizzards can make visibility so poor that seeing one's own hand becomes impossible; they are as unpredictable as they are frequent. The South Pole lies somewhere near the continent's centre. In some cases, where giant ice sheets that dominate much of the continent's landscape have drifted away into the sea, areas of extensive rock exposure remain. These cold arid deserts which have one of the harshest environments on the planet, are called dry valleys.

The continent is divided into two subcontinents - East and West Antarctica - by the 500-million-year-old Trans-Antarctic Mountains. While East Antarctica is a very large pre-Cambrian shield which was once part of the ancient Gondwana landmass (which existed a billion years ago and included Africa, India, Australia and South America, and broke up 65 million years ago), West Antarctica is much younger and smaller. Again, while East Antarctica is tied to the base, the West Antarctic ice sheet, which was formed by the addition of continental microplates over the last 500 million years, is unstable; in some places it even floats just below the sea surface.

Scientists have over the past four decades discovered that the desolate continent is a key component in the planet's ecosystems - in fact recharging and reviving it. Its pure waters comprise 90 per cent of the earth's fresh water; its cold water currents which meet the warm currents from the Indian, Pacific and Atlantic oceans have a prominent influence on ocean currents worldwide; its thinning and retreating glaciers, which are very sensitive to changes in weather, also effect changes in global sea levels (which have gone up by 33 feet, or 10 metres) and atmospheric circulations; the ice and the icy waters are alive with life forms, micro-organisms and marine life, which in some places have remained undisturbed for as long as two million years; the southern ocean dynamics act like a heat sink in the sequestration of atmospheric carbon dioxide (by elements in the ocean like phytoplanktons, zoophytoplanktons and chlorophyll); it stores and transports heat from one part of the earth to another, thus influencing global temperatures and rainfall.

Antarctica is a barometer for global climatic change. While temperatures have gone up by 10 Fahrenheit the world over over the last century, they have gone up by 40 F in Antarctica. The untouched continent's ice cores, frozen archives that trap and hold atmospheric gases, provide weather summaries dating back to 100,000 years.

For teams of international scientists grappling with the whale of scientific information emanating from Antarctica, the first significant breakthrough was the detection of the depletion in the ozone layer by British scientist Joe Farman in 1985. Taking measurements indicating the total amount of ozone in a column of atmosphere above the Halley Bay base of Britain, Farman showed that starting from the 1970s there had been a near 30 per cent depletion in the earth's ozone layer. Other studies and discoveries include the discovery by the Russians in 1995 of the 12,000-sq km Vostok sub-glacier freshwater lake, beneath 3 km of ice cover in central-east Antarctica.

GIVEN the scientific and geopolitical importance of Antarctica (during the Cold War years, the Soviet Union and the U.S. used the waters to park their submarines clandestinely under the ice) and also its geographic location, India could hardly afford to ignore the ice continent. India's rendezvous with Antarctica began with the first Indian Antarctic Expedition which set sail from Goa on December 6, 1981. Here it must be said that an Indian, Parmjit Singh Sehra, then a young researcher at the Ahmedabad-based Physical Research Laboratory, had been part of an Indo-Russian expedition that went to Antarctica in 1971 to study the upper atmosphere; he also happens to be the only Indian scientist to have visited the South Pole. Since 1981, a voyage to Antarctica has become an annual event for Indian researchers, who have spent more than 7,000 days in all on the continent. Some of them have even spent winters at India's present permanent Antarctic research station Maitri, set up in 1988-89. ( The first Indian permanent station was Dakshin Gangotri, set up in 1983.)

India is now looking forward to setting up another Antarctic station. An Indian expedition that will leave for Antarctica sometime in December this year will be given the task of surveying and identifying a suitable spot for that. The forthcoming expedition will also have a special Southern Ocean Expedition team drawn from 11 major national institutions; the team will collect water samples and sediments from the Southern Ocean. The samples will help scientists study the physical, chemical, biological and geological oceanography of the Southern Ocean. The team is expected to go upto 500 S latitude - a first for India. Today India's campaign in Antarctica is spearheaded by the National Centre for Antarctic and Ocean Research (NCAOR) established in 1997. The singular institution is situated in Vasco da Gama, Goa. It is the first in the subcontinent to be engaged in Southern Ocean studies and polar sciences. The mission objective of the NCAOR, which is under the Department of Ocean Development (DOD), is "to plan, promote, coordinate and execute the entire gamut of polar science and logistic activities of the country in order to ensure a perceptible and influential presence of India in Antarctica and uphold our interests in the global framework of nations in the southern continent and the surrounding areas".

According to Dr. Prem Chand Pandey, founder-Director of the NCAOR, the Centre's research programmes "are well-focussed, globally relevant and in tune with the requirements of the international Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research". He added that India, in recognition of its collaborative programmes (it is only one of 27 countries that have Consultative Party status as per the 1961 Antarctic Treaty system and has voting rights at the annual Antarctica Treaty Consultative Meetings) was recently made a member of the prestigious International Planning Group (IPG) that will be a crucial component of the forthcoming International Polar Year (2007-08). The IPG will help formulate visionary programmes for the global community in Antarctica. Indian scientists aver that Antarctic research is basically for generating knowledge about a continent that has a key role to play in the global climate. "When our resources get depleted we could look at the ample resources of the Southern Ocean waters. After all, they are international waters. We should not be left out."

Given that Antarctic programmes have to be international collaborations (with an exchange of data) - owing to the sheer vastness of the continent if nothing else - the DOD is going to sign memorandums of understanding with friendly countries. Pandey disclosed that the NCAOR was in touch with the Alfred Wagner Research Institute in Germany for ice polar research programmes.

Global climatic changes are having a disastrous effect on Antarctica. It is now known that if the Antarctic ice caps are to melt they would increase sea levels by 65 metres. As a result of global warming, the Antarctic ice has already started melting. Ice shelves have started disintegrating (a few years ago a 32-km-long shelf broke away). Studies into this are being conducted by the NCAOR. According to Pandey, scientists from the NCAOR working in tandem with their colleagues from Delhi and Ahmedabad have found that the Antarctic sea ice, under the influence of global warming was expanding instead of contracting. "We do not know the reason for this, but our research has shown this. This is a remarkable discovery."

Among the major research programmes of the NCAOR is the Rs.70-crore Indian Legal Continental Shelf (LCS) Programme. The programme seeks to establish India's legal continental shelf beyond the 200 nautical mile limit of the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in accordance with the guidelines of the United Nations' 1982 Convention on the Law of the Sea. Under the provisions of this convention, coastal nations with demonstrable legal continental shelves beyond their EEZs are required to submit their claims along with the requisite scientific and technical data to an international commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS) within a stipulated time (in India's case, by 2009). The Commission will consider the data and make recommendations whether India's maritime boundaries could be redrawn. By a conservative estimate, it could increase India's EEZ by 1.5 million sq km. Neighbouring countries like Pakistan have also undertaken a similar exercise.

Explained Dr. S. Rajan who heads the LCS Programme: "The survey by a seismic vessel has been going on since July 2002. While we have the database to analyse the data, we don't have the research platform. That is why we have hired the Russian vessel Mezem. The data collection should be over by next January and we will interpret it and make our submission by 2005. The exercise is strategically and socio-economically very important since there are vast amounts of hydrocarbons, minerals and nodules out there. Right now, it may not be economically viable to mine these but it could be a back-up once our known resources run out. Claims are to be made as per clear-cut guidelines. For example, we have to show that the sediment deposited on the ocean floor was indeed brought by our rivers. We can go up to the point where the thickness of the sediment is at least one kilometre from the foot of the slope. But then again, we can't go beyond 350 nautical miles and isobaths (lines joining equal depths) of 2,500 metres."

The Centre has just embarked on the Rs.50 crore Swath Bathymetry Programme, in which the NCAOR along with institutions such as the National Institute of Oceanography, is involved in the mapping of the sea bed (within India's EEZ).

The NCAOR is also involved in research and development (R&D) programmes in Antarctic science, polar remote sensing, Southern Ocean oceanography, the monsoon experiments that are being conducted by numerous national agencies, the logistics of the Indian Antarctic expeditions, the upkeep of Maitri, and the management of the ocean research vessel Sagar Kanya.

Said Pandey, "Given the importance of ice core analysis, we have set up the National Ice Core facility (similar to the U.S. Ice Core Laboratory in Denver, Colorado). We have brought ice cores from the Antarctic, deposited them at -250 and we shall be studying their isotopic, gaseous and ionic compositions. This will help us learn about the climatic, environmental and atmospheric conditions of the past." Scientists believe that studying the ice and the existent life forms in Antarctica could possibly help solve the question whether life can exist in the frozen worlds of the solar system.

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