MAHE Professors Participate in 39th Indian Expedition to Antarctica
Two MAHE professors—Dr Krishnamurthy Bhat and Dr Anish Kumar Warrier—recently participated in the 39th Indian Expedition to Antarctica. Dr Krishnamurthy Bhat, Professor and HOD at the Department of Pharmaceutical Quality Assurance at MCOPS, investigated the presence of micropollutants in the Antarctic sea from Bharati—one of India’s research stations in Antarctica between the months of November 2019 and January 2020. On the other hand, four-time veteran Dr Anish Kumar Warrier, an Associate Professor of Geology in the Department of Civil Engineering at MIT, studied lake sediment cores to examine past climatic changes and sea-level variations at the Maitri station in the months of November and December 2019.
The Road to Antarctica
Dr Krishnamurthy Bhat conducted his research in association with Professor K Balakrishna from the Department of Civil Engineering, MIT. While Professor K Balkrishna went for the research expedition in 2017, Dr Bhat was selected for the journey in 2019, after two rounds of screening and presentation at the National Center for Polar and Ocean Research (NCPOR), Goa. Their research primarily focuses on quantifying the micropollutants present in the Antarctic seas. These are mainly chemical components of cosmetics products and medicines used at the research stations that invariably make their way to the water through waste streams. In the future, they plan on expanding their research to look into the effect of micropollutants on marine fauna, as well as its movement patterns.
Dr Anish Warrier was a postdoctoral fellow at the NCPOR and had previously participated in three expeditions as a part of the fellowship. Dr Warrier is a paleoclimatologist—a scientist studying past variations in the Earth’s climate. His research work pertains to studying the changes in Antarctic climate during glacial-interglacial timescales by using lake sediment cores. The application of physical, chemical, and biological techniques on these sediment cores enables his team to reconstruct past climatic conditions, as well as model and predict the future climate of the region. “We got sediment cores of varying lengths from 45 cm to 800 cm. The 800 cm sediment core being the longest ever sediment core obtained from an epi-shelf lake in Antarctica,” said Dr Warrier, when asked about his research. The expedition was a joint effort by several Indian and Japanese institutes including MAHE under the campaign of the Schirmacher Oasis Nippon (Japan) India Coring (SONIC) Expedition.
Embarking on such a challenging expedition required months of thorough preparation and training. According to Dr Bhat, they were trained in skills such as walking on ice and acclimatisation at Haridwar and an Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) camp in Auli, Uttarakhand. In addition to this, they also had to undergo extensive medical tests at AIIMS before they could be declared fit for the expedition. Their travel to the frozen continent was authorised through a diplomatic passport. The two had to take a commercial flight to Cape Town, South Africa and then a chartered plane by Antarctic Logistics Centre International (ALCI) to Antarctica.
Life at the South Pole
Despite all the preparation, the harsh conditions of Antarctica forced the researchers to face various challenges. One such problem was manoeuvering the frozen terrain of the Antarctic, “The landscape in Antarctica is quite different,” said Dr Warrier, “The topography is tricky due to the snow-capped highs and lows, and in some places, one can find blue ice too. The valleys are all laden with huge boulders of rocks that have been broken down due to glacial activity. We had to use different types of vehicles to move around.” Not all locations are accessible by vehicles, however, and there were times when they had to trek across the landscape sharing a load of one hundred and fifty kilograms between ten people. Both of them recall wearing three to four layers of clothing to face the freezing weather and keep themselves warm. Maitri, the Indian research station commissioned in 1989, has very few facilities in contrast to Bharati, which is a more recently constructed station. Researchers had to stay inside shipping containers redesigned as living modules and share facilities between two to three people in Maitri.
The research expeditions were governed by a strict set of regulations enforced by NCOPR that every scientist had to follow to preserve the pristine condition of the land. They were restricted from entertaining any fauna and had to collect all types of waste and separate them based on its classification. This waste segregation went a step further than the kind most practise at home—”Once you shave, you have to separate the hair particles and the soap. The hair has to be separately disposed, and soap with water goes to the effluent treatment where hair cannot go. The hair has to be packed separately and brought back to the mainland,” recalled Dr Bhat.
Being miles away from civilisation and technology, it often became challenging to keep their mental health in check and continue to operate at peak capacity. “It was very difficult. We didn’t have any internet access to check our personal/official emails or even WhatsApp and Skype. We could only use the official station email address, which is expensive and runs on a satellite connection to send emails to our family members,” said Dr Warrier. They had regulated telephone usage through telephone cards, which could only be used for as little as twenty minutes a month during winters and seven minutes a month during the summer, to keep in touch with their family. “During November, the weather in Antarctica was quite fickle, and we experienced a few blizzards and strong wind conditions. The conditions were quite challenging, but we kept going and completed a majority of our fieldwork that we had planned,” added Dr Warrier, when asked about the working conditions.
Boundaries between different professions blurred as duties in the camp were distributed evenly between the residents. The scientists took turns in keeping the campsite clean, cooking food, and checking readings during the day and night. “There is a set of duties called community duty which involves cleaning the corridors, cleaning general areas, the dining area, bringing the supplies, cleaning the dustbin, etc. which is rotated between the scientists. I have seen drivers of the vehicles and the program director doing it hand in hand, which is unimaginable in the mainland,” noted Dr Krishnamurthy.
All the above limitations and work did not stop the researchers from having fun. “We used to watch a lot of movies and somedays dance together. It was a mix of work and fun,” reminisces Dr Krishnamurthy Bhat. Dr Warrier also got the chance to celebrate his birthday during one of the expeditions. Breaking his own record in this expedition was another noteworthy incident for him—”We managed to break our previous record by collecting twenty sediment core samples from nine lakes and that too in only fifteen days, and it was a quite cherishable memory.” Perhaps a more sombre memory from this expedition for Dr Warrier was witnessing the tremendous effect of climate change on this pristine environment. According to him, in the first few weeks of December, they experienced significant warming at the Maitri research station, which led to rapid melting of the snow and the continental ice-sheet.
“You should be determined, and the project should be strong. Sometimes, people cannot clear the training and some others drop out,” said Dr Krishnamurthy, advising students who want to take up research projects in Antarctica. These professors are a few among the 2500 Indians who have visited Antarctica in the last 40 years of India’s Antarctic research. One must be mentally and physically prepared to attempt such a journey and see that their research reaches the right conclusion. The two professors, along with many others, have undertaken such expeditions in various parts of the world to set examples for a long line of students to follow.
Image Credits: Dr Krishnamurthy Bhat and Dr Anish Warrier