India in Arctic and Antarctic

By: Rasik Ravindra
India led its first scientific expedition to the Antarctic in 1981 and to the Arctic in 2007. India is thus, among the very few nations in the world to operate stations both in the Arctic and the Antarctic.

Polar regions, Arctic and Antarctic, with their wilderness, mystery and scientific potential have always inspired mankind to lead innumerable expeditions to unravel the secrets hidden under the vast expanse of snow and ice. India led its first scientific expedition to the Antarctic in 1981. The Antarctic Study Centre – dedicated to Antarctic studies was created in 1988. The National Centre for Antarctic and Ocean Research (NCAOR), an autonomous Institute under Ministry of Earth Sciences, was dedicated to the nation in 1999.  The Centre has the mandate to plan, promote, co-ordinate and execute the entire gamut of polar science and logistic activities of the country.

The Antarctic

The Indian Antarctic Programme brings together more than sixty national organisations, universities and national laboratories in the advancement of polar sciences. In all, thirty expeditions to Antarctic have been conducted till date. Dakshin Gangotri the first Indian station in Antarctic sank into snow due to excessive snow accumulation in 1989. Maitri the second Indian station was built in an ice free, mountainous area called the Schirmacher Oasis in 1988. The station has been housing expedition members since then and is operating as a base for undertaking work in deep interior areas of eastern Antarctic. The scientific experiments carried out at the Antarctic fall in five major domains: Atmospheric and meteorological sciences; Earth sciences including geophysics and glaciology; Biology and environmental sciences; Human physiology and medical sciences and Cold region engineering. Some of the major initiatives include: continuous recording of weather parameters, monitoring of greenhouse gases and operation of seismic, geomagnetic and a permanent global positioning system (GPS) observatories. India has undertaken geological mapping on a scale of 1:50,000 of the central Dronning Maud Land, covering an area of more than 18,000 sq km in eastern Antarctic and glaciological studies to monitor the health of glaciers and shallow ice core drilling to decipher climate changes in the Holocene. Indian scientists are also working on cold adaptive microbes, mosses and lichens and the mapping of biodiversity in this region. India has to its credit discovery of some new species and a monograph on the lichens of Schirmacher Oasis has been published. The work on establishing a new research base Bharati in the Larsemann Hills, Prydz Bay area, in eastern Antarctic has been initiated. India holds prestigious positions in international Antarctic bodies, including the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR), the Council of Managers of National Antarctic Programme (COMNAP), the Asian Forum in Polar Sciences (AFoPS) and the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR).

 The Arctic

NCAOR led India’s first Arctic expedition in August 2007 coinciding with the International Polar Year (IPY). The IPY was one of the biggest scientific congregations of nations devoting time, energy and resources to contribute to the understanding of the poles and their relevance to the world at large. Under the programme, Indian scientists camped at the international research village Ny Ålesund on Spitsbergen Island of the Svalbard archipelago. The scientists representing various institutes and universities undertook studies in consultation with the Svalbard Science Forum, Ny Ålesund Science Managers Committee and Norwegian Polar Research Institute.

In 2008, the Union Minister of Science and Technology and Earth Sciences, Shri Kapil Sibal inaugurated the Indian research base Himadri at Ny Ålesund, Svalbard situated at 78055’N, 11056’E. With the establishment of Himadri India has become the 10th country to have a full fledged research station at Ny Ålesund. India is thus, among the very few nations that operate stations both in the Arctic and Antarctic.

Arctic atmospheric studies so far have focused on simultaneous and continuous measurements of atmospheric electrical field, conductivity and the size distribution of atmospheric aerosols to understand the global electric circuit and solar-terrestrial relationships. Aerosol measurements are specifically targeted to study the source of Arctic summer aerosols, their concentrations and the processes of the new aerosol particle generation in the Arctic regions. The biological investigations aim to study the microorganisms that thrive in the different environment in such regions and define the lower temperature limits for life. Geologically, Svalbard Island provides a unique opportunity to study the landforms formed by glaciers, rivers and neotectonic activities. Palaeoclimatic studies from the exposed sections and sediments cores are expected to throw significant light on the changing pattern of the climate in recent past.

Southern Ocean studies

The Southern Ocean is the source and sinks for several intermediate and deep water masses of the world oceans. The research in the Southern Ocean underlines the sensitivity of the Southern Ocean region to climatic variability and its importance in our understanding of climate at large. For the past 25 years, India has had a strong presence in Antarctic to bridge the gap in knowledge. The basic and advanced research programmes proposed to be undertaken in the Southern Ocean Sector include:

  • Dynamics of the formation and distribution of water masses, currents and sea ice
  • Investigating the relationship between oceanic and atmospheric circulation systems’ physical basis for biological productivity
  • Assessment of the distribution, sources and sinks of carbon. Deciphering palaeoclimate records preserved in the sediment cores, through integrated sedimentological, micro-paleontological and geochemical studies
  • Delineation of space-time variables of the Antarctic Polar Front and Subtropical Convergence in the Indian Ocean Sector of the Southern Ocean.

Involving about a dozen institutions, four cruises (including a pilot expedition) were launched during January-March 2004 and January-April 2006, 2009 and 2010 to understand the complex integrated behaviour of the Indian Ocean Sector of the Southern Ocean. The Fifth Cruise set to be launched in January 2011 has two foreign participants from Brazil.

The South Pole Traverse

The crowning glory for India was the successful traverse to the South Pole during November-December 2010. The expedition was launched simultaneously from Delhi and Goa on 2nd of November 2010.


International scene

India has a Consultative Party Status in the Antarctic Treaty System (ATS) and takes active part in the Antarctic Treaty Consultative meetings. It hosted the XXX Antarctic Treaty Consultative Committee Meeting (ATCM) in New Delhi in April-May 2007, which brought about 300 polar delegates to India for the first time. The meeting was significant as India defended its proposal for a new Antarctic Base in Larsemann hills and obtained the clearance from the Committee for Environmental Protection (CEP) for it.

SCAR, is one of the most proactive scientific bodies of the International Council for Science (ICSU) overseeing the cooperation in scientific research in the Antarctic. Director NCAOR is the Vice President of the SCAR Delegate Meet for the term 2008-2012. In 1999 India joined COMNAP  and the Standing Committee on Antarctic and Logistic Operations (SCALOP).

India, a member of the CCAMLR has chaired the body for a term and is also one of the founder members of AFoPS with China, Japan, Korea and Malaysia and the Dronning Maud Land Air Operators Network (DROMLAN) that oversees the air operations between South Africa and the Antarctic. India holds current position of Chair of AFoPS as also of the Larsemann Hills Coordination Group.


Geopolitics and India

Signing of the Antarctic Treaty in Washington in 1959 resulted in recognising Antarctic as a region of science and cooperation. Though several countries had conflicting and overlapping claims on the Antarctic territory, the original 12 signatories agreed to freeze their claims as it was realised that it was “in the interests of all mankind that Antarctica shall continue forever to be used exclusively for peaceful purposes and shall not become the scene or object of international discord”. This proved to be a major policy stand pertaining to Antarctic and gave rise to the ATS an instrument that has survived the cold war period and is cited as one of the most successful international agreements.

The ATS has kept under suspension the contentious issues relating to claims of sovereignty over different parts of the Antarctic. ATS not only ended suspicion among claimant nations but has also proved to be an effective management tool to control environmental and other legal issues. Several agreements that make the ATS such as, the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty (Madrid, 1991); the Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Seals (CCAS, London, 1972), the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR, Canberra, 1980) and a number of other measures, resolutions and decisions further strengthen the ATS.

The scenario so far as the Arctic is concerned is entirely different. The international attention to the Arctic sea region is increasing in view of the fast depletion of sea ice cover and chances of opening of new sea routes. Most of the region surrounding the Arctic sea falls under the sovereign control of nations of the Arctic Council which was formally established under the Ottawa Declaration of 1996. The Council is a high level intergovernmental forum for promoting cooperation, coordination and interaction among the Arctic states, with the express involvement of Arctic indigenous communities and other inhabitants on common Arctic issues, especially those of sustainable development and environmental protection. India is not an Arctic country or a member of the Arctic Council but the Svalbard Treaty which came into force on August 14, 1925 gives it the right to conduct exploration in Svalbard region of Arctic.

India has been invited to attend the International Arctic Science Committee Meeting in 2011 as an observer. This would offer it an opportunity to show case its scientific achievements in the Arctic region which could help it in securing a place in Arctic Council.

India has started playing a constructive role in matters pertaining to several issues in the Antarctic such as preservation of environment, energy management, outreach, capacity building and tourism activity. It has voiced its concern over the growing tourism and consequential negative impact on the pristine environment of the Antarctic.

During XXX ATCM, held in New Delhi, India had put forward that there was a need to give a fresh look at the growth of tourism in Antarctic, in the context of protecting its environment. Considering that India is not a claimant nation in the Antarctic Treaty regime, there is a need to define our goals, apart from the scientific and research aspects. The international outlook towards Antarctic is under scrutiny by many nations. India needs to develop a long term strategy for the Polar Regions, especially as many South Asian countries have started active exploration strategy both in Arctic and Antarctic.

Three main components of the Indian Polar Programme

Antarctic Programme

  • Scientific and logistic tasks linked to Antarctic expeditions ● Maintenance of Research Base Maitri, the Indian Antarctic station ● Maintaining linkages with Antarctic Treaty, SCAR and COMNAP secretariat ● Establishment of Bharti, the third Indian Antarctic station and collection of base line data for environmental impact assessment studies. ● Acquisition of a polar research vessel


Arctic Programme

  • Coordination, formulation and execution of multidisciplinary and multiinstitutional scientific research at the Indian Arctic Station, Himadri.


Southern Ocean Expeditions

● Launching and coordinating scientific tasks of Southern Ocean Expeditions

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