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A glimpse of the Antarctic Mission: Retracing India’s journey to the Great White Continent

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By Gaurav Sharma

There are many places on Earth which do not fit the conventional definition of ‘popular’ tourism places.

Topping the list of these unconventional places is Antarctica.

Nearly twice the size of Australia, Antarctica, on any ‘normal’ day, is the coldest, driest and the windiest place located at the highest average elevation among all continents on Earth.

The vast wilderness and isolated grandeur of the Southern landmass has always been an appealing attraction to the curious eyes of human explorers.

Legal standing of Antarctica

Members of the Antarctic Treaty
Members of the Antarctic Treaty

Geopolitically, Antarctica is governed by The Antarctic Treaty, an international legislation signed by more than 50 countries, representing the large majority of the world’s population.

The treaty underscores the contention that the great white continent is too huge and too unique to be governed by any one nation.

The 1961 treaty holds Antarctica as a scientific preserve, bans military activities and sanctions scientific investigations while highlighting the importance of minimal human activities in the region.

India acceded to the treaty on August 1, 1983, becoming its thirteenth Consultative member.

India’s foray into the Great White

Indian scientists, explorers and researchers haven’t been left behind in the quest for discovering the unique biodiversity and environmental physiology of Antarctica.

Historic-02
Lieutenent Ram Charan

Lieutenent Ram Charan, an Indian Navy Meteorologist, was the first Indian to touch ground in Antarctica while accompanying an Australian expedition in 1960.

The Indian flag, however, was unfurled in Antarctica for the first time in the beginning years of 1980s, cascading into a series of other Southern Ocean expeditions.

Dr Syed Zahoor Qasim, a leading marine biologist led India’s first expedition to the frozen continent, hoisting the tricolour on the white expanse on January 9, 1982.

Breaking the monopoly of the rich and developed nations, the fourteen member team led by Dr Qasim made the world take notice of India as a leading explorative nation.

Till date more than 30 expeditions to the Southern ice-mass have been successfully organized by India.

Establishing Research Stations

Dr Syed Zahoor Qasim

After leading India’s first expedition to Antarctica, Dr Qasim successfully organized and guided seven other tours from 1981 to 1988.

  • Dakshin Gangotri: Located 2500 Kms from the South Pole, Dakshin Gangotri was India’s first scientific base station. Set up by an 81 member team, the base station comprised entirely of indigenous equipment and was powered by solar energy. The station was used as an automatic weather recording station apart from serving as a test station for radio waves and an observatory for physical oceanography.

  • Maitri: India’s second permanent research base in Antarctica was built in 1989. Maitri is situated atop a mountainous region called Schirmacher Oasis. The station is endowed with modern facilities to carry out research in various disciplines such as  biology, earth sciences, glaciology, atmospheric sciences, meteorology etc. After the establishment of Maitri, India achieved the aim of mapping the Oasis and also built its own freshwater lake, Lake Priyadarshini in the region.

  • Bharti: India commissioned its third research facility in Antarctica on a rocky promontory fringing the Prydz Bay between Stornes and Broknes peninsula in the Larsemann Hills area. Bharti focuses on oceanographic studies and the phenomenon of continental breakup, Additionally, it also facilitates research to refine the current understanding of the Indian subcontinent’s geological history.

Who organizes India’s Antarctic program?

Indian Antarctic Program

The National Centre for Antarctic and Ocean Research(NCAOR), a government body functioning under the Ministry of Earth Sciences controls India’s Antarctic program.

The NCAOR, in collaboration with the Department of Ocean Development, selects members of the tours.

Trainees have to undergo thorough medical tests and acclimatization trips on the Himalayas before being selected. They are then subsequently trained in firefighting, survival tactics and environmental ethics.

Commitment to Antarctic protection

Apart from being a party in the Antarctica Treaty System, India has signed the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR). In 1997, India also ratified the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty thus reaffirming India’s commitment to protection of the Antarctic environment.

The chair to CCAMLR has been occupied by India in 1998 for a period of two years.

Furthermore, India collaborates with major global organizations; the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission, Regional Committee of Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission in Coastal Indian Ocean (IOCINDIO), & International Seabed Authority (ISBA).

Today, India stands in good stead with the major superpowers while crafting out its own unique scientific, research space in Antarctica.

At the same time, India has ensured that the pressing issue of environmental degradation due to human activity is addressed through its own example of international cooperation.

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NASA: Earth’s Ozone Hole Shrinks to Smallest Since 1988

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NASA
NASA: Earth's Ozone Hole Shrinks to Smallest Since 1988 (VOA)

Washington: The ozone hole over Antarctica shrank to its smallest peak since 1988, NASA said Thursday. The huge hole in Earth’s protective ozone layer reached its maximum this year in September, and this year NASA said it was 7.6 million square miles (19.6 million square kilometers). The hole size shrinks after mid-September.

This year’s maximum hole is more than twice as big as the United States, but it’s 1.3 million square miles smaller than last year and 3.3 million square miles smaller than 2015.

FILE - A false-color view of total ozone over the Antarctic pole is seen in this NASA handout image released Oct. 24, 2012. The purple and blue colors are where there is the least ozone. The average area covered by the Antarctic ozone hole in that year was the second smallest in two decades, at 8.2 million square miles; in September 2017, it was 7.6 million square miles.

[ FILE – A false-color view of total ozone over the Antarctic pole is seen in this NASA handout image released Oct. 24, 2012. The purple and blue colors are where there is the least ozone. The average area covered by the Antarctic ozone hole in that year was the second smallest in two decades, at 8.2 million square miles; in September 2017, it was 7.6 million square miles ].

Paul Newman, chief Earth scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, said stormy conditions in the upper atmosphere warmed the air and kept the chemicals chlorine and bromine from eating ozone. He said scientists haven’t quite figured out why some years are stormier — and have smaller ozone holes — than others.

“It’s really small this year. That’s a good thing,” Newman said.

Newman said this year’s drop is mostly natural but is on top of a trend of smaller steady improvements likely from the banning of ozone-eating chemicals in a 1987 international treaty. The ozone hole hit its highest in 2000 at 11.5 million square miles (29.86 million square kilometers).

Ozone is a colorless combination of three oxygen atoms. High in the atmosphere, about 7 to 25 miles (11 to 40 kilometers) above the Earth, ozone shields Earth from ultraviolet rays that cause skin cancer, crop damage and other problems.

Scientists at the United Nations a few years ago determined that without the 1987 treaty, by 2030 there would have been an extra 2 million skin cancer cases. They said that overall, the ozone layer is beginning to recover because of the phase-out of chemicals used in refrigerants and aerosol cans. (VOA)

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The connection between Antarctic Volcanic Eruptions and abrupt Climate Change: Study

Joseph McConnell conducted the study

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The connection between Antarctic Volcanic Eruptions and abrupt Climate Change
The connection between Antarctic Volcanic Eruptions and abrupt Climate Change. Pixabay
  • The Climate change that began approximately 17,700 years ago included a sudden poleward shift in the westerly winds encircling Antarctica
  • Joseph McConnell’s ice core laboratory enabled high-resolution measurements of ice cores extracted from remote regions of the Earth, such as Greenland and Antarctica
  • West Antarctic Ice Sheet Divide core was drilled to a depth of more than 3,405 meters

New York, USA, September 7, 2017: A series of volcanic eruptions in the Antarctica coincided with increased deglaciation and rise in global greenhouse gas concentrations about 17,700 years ago, says a study.

“Detailed chemical measurements in Antarctic ice cores show that massive, halogen-rich eruptions from the West Antarctic Mt. Takahe volcano coincided exactly with the onset of the most rapid, widespread Climate Change in the Southern Hemisphere during the end of the last ice age,” said Joseph McConnell, Professor at the Desert Research Institute (DRI) in Nevada, US.

The Climate Change that began approximately 17,700 years ago included a sudden poleward shift in the westerly winds encircling Antarctica with corresponding changes in sea ice extent, ocean circulation and ventilation of the deep ocean.

Evidence of Climate Change like this is found in many parts of the Southern Hemisphere and in different paleoclimate archives, but what prompted these changes has remained largely unexplained.

“We postulate that these halogen-rich eruptions created a stratospheric ozone hole over Antarctica that, analogous to the modern ozone hole, led to large-scale changes in atmospheric circulation and hydro climate throughout the Southern Hemisphere,” McConnell said.

Furthermore, the fallout from these eruptions – containing elevated levels of hydrofluoric acid and toxic heavy metals – extended at least 2,800 kilometers from Mt. Takahe and likely reached southern South America.

For the study, McConnell’s ice core laboratory enabled high-resolution measurements of ice cores extracted from remote regions of the Earth, such as Greenland and Antarctica.

One such ice core, known as the West Antarctic Ice Sheet Divide (WAIS Divide) core was drilled to a depth of more than 3,405 meters, and much of it was analyzed in the Desert Research Institute Ultra-Trace Laboratory for more than 30 different elements and chemical species.

Additional analyses and modeling studies critical to support the authors’ findings were made by collaborating institutions around the US and the world.

“These precise, high-resolution records illustrate that the chemical anomaly observed in the WAIS Divide ice core was the result of a series of eruptions of Mt. Takahe located 350 kilometers to the north,” Monica Arienzo, Assistant Research Professor at DRI, said. (IANS)

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Largest Volcanic Region on Earth Discovered in Antarctica

"The big question is: how active are these volcanoes? That is something we need to determine as quickly as possible,"

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The largest volcanic region is below the ice sheets in west Antarctica
Largest volcanic region discovered in Antarctica. Pixabay
  • The largest volcanic region on Earth has been discovered in west Antarctica 
  • The newly discovered volcanoes range in height from 100 to 3,850 m
  • These active peaks are concentrated in a region known as the west Antarctic rift system

London, August 15, 2017: The largest volcanic region on Earth — with nearly 100 volcanoes — has been discovered two km below the surface of the vast ice sheet in west Antarctica.

Researchers from the University of Edinburgh in Britain found a staggering 91 previously unknown volcanoes, adding to the 47 others that had been discovered over the previous century of exploring the region.

These newly discovered volcanoes range in height from 100 to 3,850 m, with the highest almost as tall as Switzerland’s 3,970-m Eiger mountain.

These active peaks are concentrated in a region known as the west Antarctic rift system — which stretches 3,500 km from Antarctica’s Ross ice shelf to the Antarctic peninsula.

According to geologists, this huge region is likely to dwarf east Africa’s volcanic ridge — currently rated as the densest concentration of volcanoes in the world.

ALSO READVenus could have active volcanoes, says research

However, the activity of this range could have worrying consequences, glacier expert Robert Bingham was quoted as saying to the Guardian.

“If one of these volcanoes were to erupt it could further destabilise west Antarctica’s ice sheets,” Bingham warned.

“Anything that causes the melting of ice, which an eruption certainly would, is likely to speed up the flow of ice into the sea,” he said.

“The big question is: how active are these volcanoes? That is something we need to determine as quickly as possible,” he added.

The Edinburgh volcano survey, reported in the Geological Society’s special publications series, involved studying the underside of the west Antarctica ice sheet for hidden peaks of basalt rock similar to those produced by the region’s other volcanoes.

Presently, volcanism is seen in regions, including Iceland and Alaska, that have recently lost their glacier covering. The same could happen in west Antarctica, where significant warming in the region caused by climate change has begun to affect its ice sheets.

If they are reduced significantly, this could release pressure on the volcanoes that lie below and lead to eruptions that could further destabilise the ice sheets and enhance sea level rises that are already affecting our oceans, Bingham noted. (IANS)