Script: K V VENKATASUBRAMANIAN, Senior Journalist
India has completed four successful decades of her scientific endeavour in Antarctica. The 40th Indian Scientific Expedition (40-ISEA) to the icy continent returned to Cape Town on April 10 after concluding a journey of 12,000 nautical miles in 94 days, including stopovers.
The 40-ISEA comprised scientists, engineers, doctors, and technicians. The crew was flagged off to the South Pole from Mormugao Port, Goa, with 43 members on board, on January 5 this year.
The 40-ISEA was onboard the MV Vasiliy Golovnin, a chartered ice-class vessel. It made a stopover at Cape Town for picking up helicopters and replenishing fuel and provisions. The crew landed at the Indian permanent research bases “Bharati”and ‘Maitri’ for resupply and changeover of winter crew. The team reached the Bharati station on February 27 and the Maitri station on March 8. The stations are approachable only during the austral summer season between November and March.
On its way to Antarctica, the voyage team deployed four autonomous Ocean Observing DWS (Directional Wave Spectra) wave drifters between 35-degree and 50-degree south latitudes. The deployment was done in collaboration with Indian National Centre for Ocean Information Services (INCOIS) Hyderabad. The drifters would transmit real-time data of spectral characteristics of waves, sea surface temperatures, and sea-level atmospheric pressure to INCOIS. The data will help validate weather predictions in a big way.
In the spirit of international cooperation in Antarctic science, MV Vasiliy Golovnin took a slight detour while returning to Cape Town in March. It retrieved two remotely operated Norwegian Ocean observing instruments — a sea glider and a sail buoy.
These ocean observing systems, deployed during the onward journey and retrieved during the return voyage, will help to fill in the gaps of the scantily available information in the Indian Ocean sector of the Southern Ocean.
India began its Antarctic expeditions in 1981. The first trip comprised a team of 21 scientists and support staff led by Dr S Z Qasim. After a humble beginning, the programme is now credited with having built three permanent research base stations in Antarctica—named Dakshin Gangotri, Maitri, and Bharati. As of today, India has two operational research stations, named Maitri and Bharati. The National Centre for Polar and Ocean Research (NCPOR), Goa, manages the programme. The Director of NCPOR, Dr M. Ravichandran, said, “Polar regions are crucially important in answering key questions about global climate change, its contribution towards the global sea-level rise, the background aerosol properties, variability in the sea ice cover and phenomena like Antarctic haze and ozone concentrations.”
The preceding 39th expedition was launched in November 2019. It mounted 27 scientific projects, focusing on climate process and its linkages with climate change, crustal evolution, environmental processes and conservation, the ecosystem of terrestrial and near-shore regions, observational research, and polar technology. Besides, it conducted two additional collaborative projects with the National Institute of Polar Research, Japan.
After completing its mission mandate, the team returned to India in May of 2020. It also replenished the annual supplies of food, fuel, provisions, snowmobiles, and spares for operations and maintenance of life support systems at Maitri and Bharati. It cruised a team of 48 members to Antarctica for winter operations.
The scientific and logistic activities of the fortieth (40th) expedition were limited due to the existing challenges associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. The focus was on supporting the ongoing scientific projects on climate change, geology, ocean observations, electric and magnetic flux measurements, environmental monitoring; resupplying of food, fuel, provisions and spare; and accomplishing the return of the winter crew.
India is committed to maintaining the continent of Antarctica free of COVID-19. The team was subjected to a stringent medical examination to keep the icy continent free of coronavirus. The expedition duly followed all protocols for the deployment of men and material as per the Council of Managers of National Antarctic Programmes (COMNAP). The crew underwent mandatory fourteen days of quarantine (pre and post-expedition). RT-PCR testing was done before its boarding the ice-class vessel. Moreover, extra precautions were taken to sanitise the cargo.
The expedition was hosted by the Ministry of Earth Sciences. The crew will return home soon.