India set to become major scientific player in polar region

  • Vanita Srivastava, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Sep 18, 2015 14:19 IST
Dry coring on sea ice off India's station Bharati, near Quilty Bay. (Photo/Thamban Meloth)

India is aiming for a high-powered research in the polar region for collecting vital clues on global climate change and its effect on the fluctuations in the Indian monsoon system.

For the first time, Indian scientists were able to collect systematic and continuous data, which can give newer understanding and insight into the earth system, last month for a period of one year from Arctic waters. So far, data collection from the Arctic was confined to only surface area and was not continuous.

The team of scientists from the Earth System Science Organization-National Institute of Ocean Technology (NIOT) and the ESSO-National Centre for Antarctic and Ocean Research (NCAOR) successfully recovered data from IndARC, the country's first multi-sensor moored observatory deployed in the Kongsfjorden fjord of the Arctic Ocean, almost halfway between Norway and the North Pole, in July last year. After retrieving the data, the sensors were deployed again.

"This is one of the greatest milestones India has achieved and has shown to the world our strength to design, install and retrieve an Arctic moored observatory. The collected data is most valuable and preliminary observations are promising to study further in depth. All the sensors worked successfully for a year and collected more than 10 lakh data points for the scientists to have a deeper insight on Arctic processes," said Dr R Venkatesan, who heads the NIOT team.

"The acquired data would be of vital importance to the Indian climate researchers as well as the international fraternity. In addition to providing for an increased understanding of the response of the Arctic to climatic variabilities, the data would also provide a good handle in our understanding of the Arctic processes and their influence on the Indian monsoon system through climate modelling studies," he said.

The observatory has an array of 10 state-of-the-art oceanographic sensors, programmed for measuring real-time data subsea temperature, conductivity, salinity, pressure, water current speed and direction strategically positioned at discrete depths in the water column.

'RV Lance' Norwegian Research Vessel at ARCTIC used for installation of IndARC Ice sheet at Arctic. Photo/NIOT

Last year, the cabinet had cleared a decision to purchase a vessel for polar research. While it will take some time for the vessel to finally come, it is a big step towards positioning India as a major global player in the scientific study of the region. With a research vessel of its own, India will prove its commitment to polar research and contribute to the global knowledge to understand the earth as a single system. At present, India spends Rs 150-200 crore on polar study, a major chunk of which goes in hiring the vessels.

The new polar research vessel will be built by a company in Spain and will cost Rs 1051 crore. The yet to be named vessel will take 34 months to be completed. Besides being armed with laboratories for scientists to carry out experiments while on the sea, it will also have an ice breaker which will allow it to be portable round the year.

"We are in the final stage of signing with the company in Spain. Till now we were hiring vessels from international market, mainly Russia, but they were only used as cargo ships for transporting people and material," secretary to the ministry of earth sciences, Shailesh Nayak, told HT

India has been involved in research activity in the polar region since 1981. So far, it has carried nearly 8 expeditions to Arctic and around 33 to Antarctica. The country sends around 75 scientists in a year for carrying out polar research, mostly to Antarctica.

The two major areas that India hopes to gain research ground are the study of climate change and microbiological research in the Antarctica. Scientists at the NCAOR are studying and carrying out scientific analysis in the 100 metres ice core that was brought last year. This is the longest core India has been able to bring back home.

"It took us almost 3 weeks to drill into the ice sheet and recover the core. This was then shipped back in special containers at -20 degree Celsius. The core is being studied for climatic parameters of the past. We study the isotopes of water molecules and reconstruct the past temperature," Thamban Meloth, who heads the drilling team from ESSO-NCAOR, told HT.

Study of ice core records provide one of the most direct and accurate method to study climate change beyond the instrumental data availability (typically few decades in Antarctica). Ice cores contain an abundance of scientific information about past climate and climate change, he said.

Some scientists will also study the microbiological components of the ice and snow brought back from the latest expedition to Antarctica.

"We isolate the microorganisms and look at the microbiological diversity. Besides studying their interaction with the organic environment, we also try to understand their adaption strategies," said a scientist.

Ice melting top view at Arctic. Photo/NIOT

A look at Indian research facilities in the Antarctica and Arctic:

• Dakshin Gangotri (1983) – India's first permanent station in Antarctica. Built on an ice shelf, this was completely lost to the ice by 1990.

• Maitri (1989) – India's second permanent station in Antarctica. Situated on an ice-free area in the central Dronning Maud Land, this facility has been the mainstay of Indian Antarctic research for the past 25 years.

• Bharati (2012) – India's third and most modern permanent research station in Antarctica. Situated in an ice-free area of Larsmann Hills.

• Himadri (2008) – India's first research station in the Arctic.

(Source: Thamban Meloth's article in Ocean Digest)

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