COVID-19 puts Indian polar research in quarantine - GulfToday

COVID-19 puts Indian polar research in quarantine

Meena Janardhan

Writer/Editor/Consultant. She has over 25 years of experience in the fields of environmental journalism and publishing.

Writer/Editor/Consultant. She has over 25 years of experience in the fields of environmental journalism and publishing.


Photo has been used for illustrative purposes.

Quarantine and lockdown effects have spread their tentacles as far as the Polar Regions. India’s scientific expeditions to the Poles have either been put on hold or are at a standstill because of the global shutdown due to the pandemic.

According to recent reports by Mongabay-India, India’s scientific expedition to the Arctic this year has been cancelled while as many as 28 homewards bound scientists, who were part of the country’s 39th scientific expedition to Antarctica are in quarantine in Cape Town, South Africa. The National Centre for Polar and Ocean Research (NCPOR) and the Indian Ministry of Earth Sciences have been coordinating with the Ministry of External Affairs for the return of the scientists.

Antarctica, the ‘white continent’, is the fifth-largest continent in the world and is known to be a place of extremes. Stretching almost 14 million square km, 98% of its area is covered with thick ice sheets that formed over 25 million years ago and holds a major portion of the earth’s freshwater. The world’s largest ocean current, the Antarctic circumpolar current, circumvents the Antarctic continent.

The Antarctic continent hosts around 70 active research bases belonging to various countries. The region offers several answers to key questions about global climate change such as contribution towards global sea level rise, variability in the sea ice cover, the Antarctic haze and ozone concentrations.

These bases are occupied by more than 4000 people during the summer and around 1000 people in winter. They spend an entire year in isolation, conducting research projects on the icy continent. Now, with pandemic guidelines in place, they are in double isolation!

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 also has the Observer Status in the Arctic Council.

Every year the Indian scientific expedition to the Antarctic begins between the months of December-January by ship and flight. The studies undertaken in the two Polar Regions are principally on climate change, paleoclimate and changes in the Polar Regions that influence the Indian monsoons.

Ecological monitoring in Antarctica contributes significantly to India’s input in global climate change research and a gap in sampling would mean loss of crucial data. Antarctic wildlife monitoring also forms one of the few long-term research projects of the Indian scientific expeditions to Antarctica and contributes significantly to India’s input in global climate change research.

The ongoing lockdown has slowed progress in the selection of the next team of Indians who will travel to Antarctica in late 2020 as well. Expedition members are inducted to Antarctica in small groups between November and January and de-inducted between January and March. 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.

Mongabay-India reports that scientists who are yet to reach India are worried over the condition of samples collected from fieldwork in Antarctica while others who are back in their labs have to deal with processing and planning delays.

Researchers stationed at the bases state that, due to the pandemic, guidelines have been issued by the Council of Managers of National Antarctic Programmes, an organization that brings together the national Antarctic programmes of various countries to carry safe practices in the Antarctic. Screening of the new members entering the continent has been in place since February this year. Routine visits and get-togethers with the neighbouring stations, which were very frequent earlier, have been dropped.

The NCPOR, India’s premier research institution, is responsible for the country’s research activities in the polar (Arctic, Antarctica, Himalayas) and Southern Ocean realms. The Indian Ministry of Earth Sciences records that the importance of Antarctica as a pedestal for front-ranking scientific research was recognized by Indian way back in 1981 itself, when the first Indian Scientific Expedition to Antarctica was launched. Since then, India has made great strides in initiating scientific projects of both national and global relevance as well as in catering to the entire gamut of complex logistics operations called for in the annual expeditions to Antarctica. Experiments mounted by Indian scientists in such disciplines as atmospheric sciences and meteorology, earth sciences and glaciology, biology and environmental sciences have also contributed directly to global experiments.

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