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April 1, 2010

Research at the ends of the Earth

More than sixty national organisations, universities and laboratories are associated with India’s Antarctic programme, which is coordinated by National Centre for Antarctic & Ocean Research located at Goa. India has launched 29 expeditions to the continent since 1981. The first Indian station, Dakshin Gangotri, operated from 1983-84 to 1989-90. The station had to be abandoned as it got buried due to excessive snow accumulation. The second Indian station, Maitri, was built in the Schirmacher Oasis (an ice-free mountainous area) in 1988. Maitri has been housing expedition members since then, apart from being the Base Camp for expeditions to the further reaches of eastern Antarctica.

Scientific interest

An area of approximately 20,000 sq km has been geologically mapped. The work has been published in the form of three thematic maps on the Schirmacher Oases, Wohlthat Mountains and Muhlighoffmann Mountains. Long-term glaciological studies are going on, where scientists collect snow accumulation-ablation data, monitor the snouts of glacial tongues and collect data on  the ice dynamic from the continental ice sheet south of Schirmacher. Monitoring of a glacier snout (Dakshin Gangotri), since 1983, has shown a significant recession of 6.5 to 7 metres per decade. This possibly indicates warming effects on this part of the Antarctic coast. The area under observation has been recently extended (by 8 km) to cover the continental ice margin on either side of the snout. During the 2005-06 expedition, several new initiatives were launched in this region. These include an attempt to understand the bedrock topography and sub-surface characteristics of ice using a ground penetrating radar (GPR) device. GPR profiling has provided the much needed scientific information on the sub-surface ice here, which enabled the ice core drilling in the next two years.

The Antarctic ice sheet contains a record of the history of life and environment on earth for the last thousands of years. Ice cores recovered from polar ice sheets offer the best proxies for reconstructing past climatic conditions. Given this and the lack of data from the central Dronning Maud Land (cDML), India has made a foray into Antarctic ice core research by carrying out shallow drilling. India’s first Ice Core Laboratory was set up at  the NCAOR for the exclusive archival, processing and analysis of ice cores in January 2005.

The drilling programme, a collaboration between the NCAOR and Geological Survey of India has progressed well. Ice cores of 65m, 75m and 55m have been retrieved from the continental ice and ice-shelf respectively. Also, numerous surface snow samples have been collected to study modern environmental signatures. The major ion analysis of the ice core from the cDML region in Antarctica has confirmed several historic volcanic events including Krakatau (1883), Tambora (1815), Unknown (1809) and Huaynaputina (1600). Studies have also revealed that tephra accreted during the Agung (1963) and Krakatau (1883) eruptions harboured microbial cells, suggesting that volcanic ash particles could provide a significant micro-niche for microbes and nanobes in the accreted ice. High-resolution studies on the stable isotopes of oxygen and hydrogen from an ice core recovered from the cDML were used to understand environmental variations in this region. These studies received widespread acceptance among the international community, and linked to multinational initiatives.

The ice dynamics study by a GPS campaign has revealed the rate of movement of the ice sheet. It has also suggested that the distribution of velocity can be spatially correlated with topography, subsurface undulations, fractures/crevasses (coinciding with high velocities) and the influence of the blockage of Schirmacher Oasis. The general trend of low velocities  is primarily attributed to the fact that ice sheet is located in a region of exposed nunataks which extend along the ice-shelf grounding line.

Microbiology is another upcoming field of research in Antarctica where Indian scientists are working on cold adaptive microbes, mosses and lichens and have mapped the biodiversity here. The Indian team has discovered 25 new species unknown to this area before. The therapeutic use of some of the microbes is under study.

Research on human physiology and psychological impact on expedition members is significant for the cause of science and operations at the programme, as well as to develop data for use in similar cases in  defence and allied operations.

A new station in the Antarctic

To expand the scope of research, and to include a larger area under study, the Indian  government has planned to establish a new permanent station in Antarctica. Extensive reconnaissance of the eastern part of the Antarctica was undertaken by a special task force constituted for this purpose. The team shortlisted a rocky promontory between Quilty Bay and Thala Fjord in the central part of the Larsemann Hills as a prospective site.

Subsequently, special teams were sent during the 2005 and 2006 expeditions to initiate collection of baseline environmental data at the proposed site for a Comprehensive Environmental Evaluation (CEE) and to facilitate planning of the station infrastructure. A special expedition was mounted on-board the RV Boris Petrov during early 2006 to undertake multi-beam bathymetric surveys along the planned approach of the expedition vessel to the Larsemann Hills area. It also carried out meteorological and oceanographic observations at and around the site of the new station as a part of the feasibility studies.

Large scale topographical mapping of the region at 1:5000 scales was completed. In tandem, the initial planning, design and development of the research station in the Larsemann Hills area commenced at NCAOR in 2004. The Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting (ATCM) endorsed India’s draft CEE in April 2007. The station building activities have since commenced with the transportation of heavy construction machinery to the site. An approach road from the sea edge to the station site was constructed in the Austral summer of 2009. The new station is expected to be commissioned in 2012.

An Arctic presence

The Indian Arctic research initiative coincides with the ongoing International Polar Year (IPY), which is seen as one of the biggest scientific congregation of nations devoting time, energy and resources to contribute to the understanding of poles and their relevance to the world at large. NCAOR launched India’s first Arctic expedition in August 2007 and established a research Station, Himadri, in 2008 at Ny Alesund, in the Spitsbergen Island of the Svalbard archipelago to undertake studies on topics of interests in collaboration with the Svalbard Science Forum, Ny-Alesund Science Management Committee and Norwegian Polar Research Institute.

Indian scientists have varied interests in atmospheric, biological and glaciological sciences in Arctic. Atmospheric studies so far have focused on simultaneous and continuous measurements of atmospheric electrical field, conductivity and the size distribution of atmospheric aerosols to understand the global electric circuit and solar-terrestrial relationships. Aerosol measurements have been specifically targeted to study the source of Arctic summer aerosols, their concentrations and the processes of the new aerosol particle generation in the Arctic regions. Biological investigations aim to study micro-organisms that thrive in different environments to define the lower temperature limits for life. Geologically, Svalbard Island provides a unique place to study the landforms given rise to by glaciers, rivers and neo-tectonic activities. Palaeo-climatic studies from the exposed sections and sediments cores are expected to throw significant light on the changing pattern of the climate in recent past. Markers have been put to monitor the movement of a prominent glacier and attempts will be made to map the glacier with GPR to obtain the ice core up to the base of the glacier.


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