Lab on ice

With its Antarctica programme, India joins a small, exclusive group of countries for research and study.

February 03, 2014 07:06 pm | Updated May 18, 2016 05:40 am IST - chennai:

Sudipta Sengupta

Sudipta Sengupta

Imagine a laboratory so big that it is even bigger than India and China put together. Before I tell you what it is, you need to hear the story of how it came to be.

Today’s much advocated dream of “one world” was a reality over 200 million years ago.

All the seven continents we have learnt about in Geography was one big land mass that eventually separated from each other over a period of millions of years and floated apart to look like what we see in the atlas, or Google Maps, today.

From that supercontinent — Pangaea, there was a huge piece that drifted south and became what we now know as Antarctica. Antarctica’s unique geological conditions make it a much coveted place of research and study.

And this is why many countries have set up research stations to study what the continent has in store for them.

India is one such. In fact, India with its two research stations — Maitri and Bharathi — joins the small and exclusive group of nine countries which have multiple bases in Antarctica.

India’s Antarctic programme officially began in 1981 when the first expedition to the continent was launched.

It was the third Indian expedition’s 81-member team that set up of the first research station — Dakshin Gangotri.


What can one learn from a continent full of ice and no original inhabitants except for penguins, blue whales, orcas, colossal squids, fur seals?

Mirza Javed Beg, programme director (logistics) at the National Centre for Antarctic and Ocean Research (NCAOR) says, “When we drill the ice core, we can retrieve paleoclimatic records that have been preserved in the magnitude of ice, over millions of years. Through the records we can learn about the climatic conditions of the past — how the weather behaved — and subsequently use the data to predict future patterns. This helps us have better control over weather predictions.”

Plus, there is another area of interest for us. Since India was part of the southern part of the supercontinent Pangaea, called Gondwanaland, the eastern coastline and the coastline of Antarctica share a relationship and there are still evidences of it, that can be studied, adds Javed, who has been on several expeditions to the continent.

Camping on ice

Dakshin Gangotri: India’s first station was built in 1983 but was buried in ice and abandoned around 1991. It was later excavated and used as a supply base.

Maitri: The second station was built in 1989 which is located in a mountainous region called Schirmacher Oasis. The station is equipped to carry out research in various disciplines, such as biology, earth sciences, glaciology, atmospheric sciences, meteorology, cold region engineering, communication, human physiology and medicine. (Source:

Bharathi: India’s latest research station operation since 2012 has been constructed using 134 recycled shipping containers, to enable researchers work in safety despite the harsh weather. It is located about 3000 km east of Maitri. Research on tectonics and geological structures are undertaken here.


98 per cent of Antarctica is covered by ice.

It is the coldest, driest, and windiest continent on earth.

Its air is the cleanest in the world

Politically, Antarctica’s status remains neutral, and is regulated by the 1959 Antarctic Treaty.

Antarctica was part of the supercontinent Gondwanaland which also comprised Africa, Australia, India, New Zealand and South America.

Antarctica is reachable by ship or air. The Indian team that initially used to sail from Goa would take about 22-28 days to arrive at their destination. They now use the port from Cape Town. The trip now takes about 10-14 days. The air base in Cape Town is used as well.

The different kinds of research that can be undertaken in the continent are: Glaciology (study of ice and snow), oceanography (study of oceans), geology (study of rocks), astronomy (study of the celestial objects and outer space), and meteorology (study of weather).

Been there…

Structural geologist Sudipta Sengupta is one of the first Indian women to set foot on the ice continent. She and marine biologist Aditi Pant were part of India’s third Antarctic expedition — from December 3, 1983 to March 25, 1984.

Her second trip to Antarctica was in 1989 as a part of India’s ninth expedition to the continent.

Currently a professor in Jadavpur University, Kolkata, and a trained mountaineer, Sudipta recounts her experience on the frozen continent:

“The purpose of the expedition was purely scientific. Also, India did not want to let go of the opportunity to explore the only land that did not need a visa and passport to travel to. Other countries were already showing interest and doing research. And so, India in keeping with its image of a scientifically progressive nation, decided to take part in the scientific investigation. Plus, only if you have a permanent station can you become a member of the Antarctic treaty. So, you could also say there was a semi-political motive.

I have been to Antarctica twice. The first time we were there was prior to our stations being built, hence, we camped out in the ice for nearly two months. It was quite hard, especially when braving the winds. We took some packet foods that we would heat on a gas stove using a pressure cooker or pan and eat it. It was a unique experience; life was hard but simple. I enjoyed working along with other scientists. Though work was our only focus, when we worked together we always had fun joking and laughing.

The second time I was there, we stayed at our station. This time around too we stayed for two months. And it was a lot easier as we stayed in the research station. We had frozen food which we could cook.

The interesting aspect was that since I was there during the summer on both occasions, there was day light throughout. That is due to Antarctica’s unique geographical location. Only while returning did I see twilight. I also saw the famous phenomenon of the aurora australis once.”

Aurora australis is a beautiful display of light that appears in the sky over the southern hemisphere. It is caused by the collision of highly charged particles from the solar winds with the earth’s magnetic field in the upper atmospheric layer — thermosphere.

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