The novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19)-associated lockdown has cast its shadow on India’s scientific expeditions to polar regions.
The expedition to the Arctic this year is cancelled while as many as 28 homeward-bound scientists, who were part of the country’s 39th scientific expedition to the Antarctic are in quarantine in Cape Town, South Africa owing to the lockdown in India which began on March 25, 2020.
Efforts are on to bring the 28 scientists home, said M. Ravichandran, director, National Centre for Polar and Ocean Research (NCPOR), India’s premier research institution responsible for the country’s research activities in the polar (Arctic, Antarctica, Himalayas) and Southern Ocean realms.
“The 28 Indians who are currently in quarantine at a hotel in Cape Town since April 12 are part of the 100-member Indian team to Antarctica. They were not able to return home through air travel due to the lockdown. We are in talks with the Ministry of External Affairs to bring them back home soon, most probably during the second week of May 2020,” Ravichandran told Mongabay-India.
“As for the Arctic, this year the expedition is cancelled due to COVID-19. Usually, we go in batches of 8-10 to the Arctic from April to October. Though we have continuous observation of atmospheric and ocean parameters using automated instruments in the Arctic, some of the biological and glaciological activities could not be accomplished this year. But we will cover up the same in the next year,” he added.
The studies undertaken in the two polar regions are principally on climate change, paleoclimate and changes in polar regions that influence the Indian monsoons.
COVID-19 uncertainties and polar research
Ravichandran said the current lockdown has stymied progress in the selection of the next team of Indians who will travel to the Antarctic in late 2020. “The immediate concern is how do we send people to Antarctica so that they can do research and deliver cargo and fuel and relieve the previous team stationed there in the two research bases,” noted Ravichandran.
A place of extremes, Antarctica, the ‘white continent’, is the fifth-largest continent in the world. Of the 14 million square km area, 98 percent is covered with thick ice sheets that formed 25 million years ago and holds a major portion of the earth’s freshwater.
India is a signatory to the Antarctic Treaty and to the Protocol to the Antarctic Treaty on Environmental Protection and has two research stations in Antarctica: Bharati (commissioned in 2012) and Maitri (since 1988). India has the Observer Status in the Arctic Council.
The annual travel to the Antarctic is crucial to deliver cargo and fuel to the two Indian research bases in addition to the scientific goals and objectives.
“The studies undertaken in Antarctica are mainly to understand the climate change effect and find out the linkages between Antarctica and monsoon teleconnection, to reveal the past history from ice and sediment core collected from Antarctica and how India was connected to Antarctica millions of years ago, and also for geopolitical reasons,” noted Ravichandran.
Every year the scientific expedition to the Antarctic begins between the months of December-January by ship and flight. Expedition members are inducted to Antarctica in small groups between November and January and de-inducted between January and March. NCPOR takes care of travel and transit accommodations from Goa to Antarctica via Cape Town, South Africa, and back.
“Usually, we call for proposals for long-term and short-term research in Antarctica, and various institutes and research centers in India apply for it. We then review the proposals and select a maximum of up to 100 people. Because of the lockdown, we have not been able to conduct a review of the proposals,” Ravichandran elaborated.
“We usually call them here (to Goa) and discuss their proposal. Once the discussion is over we select the team by May. They are taken to Auli for acclimatisation training after completing the medical test at AIIMS, Delhi. Once they clear the tests and evaluations, we take them to Antarctica in November/December,” he said.
Of the 100-member team, 40 percent are logistics personnel such as cooks, doctors, engineers, vehicle mechanics among others.
Ravichandran observed, “Out of the team of 100, 50 take their place at the two Indian stations (Maitri and Bharati), releasing the 50 from the previous batch that was earlier stationed. The old team returns to India. The remaining 50 of the team of 100 members carry out their short-term experiments and return by April.”
“In the present situation, out of the 50 participants who had completed their research and were returning to India, 22 came back by air travel while the rest 28 were returning to Cape Town via ship. They could not proceed to India from Cape Town via flight due to the lockdown.”
There is no question that we have to go to Antarctica because 50 researchers are still stationed there, the director asserted. “Instead of 100 people, we may send 50 in the next expedition so that we can relieve the previous batch and refill ration and fuel to run the station.”
“Given the ongoing crisis and international travel restrictions, we have to rely on satellites and instrument buoys deployed in the polar regions for data until things go back to normal,” Ravichandran said.
Additionally, part of the scientific samples (with shorter shelf life eg., biological samples, or water samples) collected by researchers in Antarctica need to be analysed in the next 2-3 months to obtain optimum results, said Mahesh Badanal, project scientist at NCPOR’s Indian Antarctic Program (Science).
Badanal embarked on the trip to Antarctic in the first week of November, 2019 and returned back to India during early January, 2020. This was his fifth expedition to the continent.
“Despite the uncertainties in research funding in the current scenario (owing to COVID curtailing), we hope to access necessary funding to carry out the analyses,” Badanal told Mongabay-India.
“We were lucky enough to return before the COVID-19 disease lockdown was imposed. However, my colleagues who were on the voyage leg of the expedition (returning via ship to Cape Town from Maitri) were not so lucky. They left Cape Town, South Africa (India’s logistic hub) during the last week of December, 2019 and returned after a 15-week voyage back to Cape Town in the second week of April, 2020,” he said.
The voyage is across the Southern Ocean (also known as the Antarctic Ocean) known for its turbulent and dangerous waters. “It’s one of the roughest ocean to sail over. And on return journeys we always encounter cyclones. It is an extremely challenging trip and physically demanding. At the end of three months of scientific and logistic operations under sub-zero conditions in Antarctica, all you want to do is come back home after enduring the harsh conditions.”
Collecting samples in extreme conditions worth the effort
Only two percent of Antarctica is ice-free. Most of the ice-free regions are along the continental edge of Antarctica and this region has a lot of lakes. Some of these lakes date back 100,000 years. Freshwater lakes in ice-free oases of Antarctica respond instantly to climate-driven seasonal environmental changes and this is well reflected in algal communities (diatoms and cyanobacteria). Unlike the tropical and temperate regions, past climate reconstruction in Antarctica is restricted to ice-cores, marine and lake sediments.
“In Antarctic lakes, we study these sediments to understand the evolutionary history of the lake, the prevailing climatic conditions, the ice-sheet dynamics (waxing and waning), and the relative sea-level variation. We employ various established novel methods to reconstruct and understand the past environmental conditions of the lakes,” explained Badanal, who works on paleolimnology (the study of lakes and lake sediments to reconstruct past climatic and environmental changes).
It takes a lot of effort and passion to collect the samples in those extreme conditions. The samples are “precious.”
“Working in Antarctica, usually at sub-zero or near zero conditions is never easy. The general topography is very rugged and undulating. All the sampling places are not accessible by vehicle and you need to reach them on foot in this undulating and rugged land. It’s a herculean task indeed to collect samples. Doing an hour’s work in Antarctica is the same as doing four to six-hour work in the mainland and the polar clothing increases one’s weight by 10 percent and you need to carry your field equipment and instruments,” narrated Badanal.
“But the effort is worth it when you can get those samples.”
One of the major factors during field visits in Antarctica is the weather. “We have to make use of all the good weather days. We start at 8 AM in the morning and by the time we return back to the research base from the field, its 10 PM at night. It is more than 12 work hours a day. We make sure that no good weather day is wasted. If the weather turns bad, it generally stays bad for a week or so. Time is of most importance in Antarctica.”
But why go the distance?
Antarctica provides an opportunity for everyone to carry out research in their field be it a biologist, a geologist, a physicist, a chemist, an engineer, or a doctor, said Badanal.
And recent studies have shown the significant impact of global warming on both the polar regions leading to increase melting of the ice sheets. In the long-term this would lead to a potential rise in sea level which would have an adverse impact on all the continents around the globe. India itself has a coastline of over 7500 km with over 250 million people living in these regions. A rise in sea level will have an adverse impact on this populace, he says.
“Hence, a lot of effort is needed from India to understand the dynamics that govern the rise in sea level. Most of our results are fed into the global paleoclimate database. Modelers use these data in projecting the future scenarios of sea-level rise which generally is promulgated by IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change),” he observed, adding that recent studies have found that the Indian monsoon response to the Arctic and Antarctic climate.
“Any adverse changes in the polar region climate will have a profound effect on the Indian monsoon.”
Badanal also stressed the importance of international collaborative research on Antarctica.
“Antarctica is more than four times the size of India. Over 30 year-round stations are located spatially all over Antarctica. In order to obtain a holistic picture of Antarctic history, we need to work in collaboration with nations and we are making headway in that direction since the past decade.”
Ravichandran said the ongoing crisis may foster dialogues on bolstering cooperation between nations. “We are collaborating with different nations in polar research but we need to have more collaborations with them. For example, near our stations on Antarctica, Russian stations are present and they help us out and we help them out as well. But there may be more discussions on how to scale up the collaborations.”