For four months from November, Vishnu Nandan will not see sunlight.
He will be aboard the German research vessel Polarstern, anchored on a large sheet of sea ice in the Central Arctic, drifting along with it during the pitch-black Polar winter.
A native of Kerala’s capital Thiruvananthapuram, the 32-year-old polar researcher will be the only Indian among 300 scientists from across the world aboard the multidisciplinary drifting observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate (MOSAiC) expedition , which will help the researchers better understand the impact of climate change and aid in improved weather projections.
Spearheaded by the Alfred Wegener Institute in Germany, MOSAiC, the largest ever Arctic expedition in history , will be the first to conduct a study of this scale at the North Pole for an entire year. Previous studies have been of shorter periods as the thicker sea ice sheets prevent access in winter. This research vessel has thus locked itself into a large sea ice sheet, before the winter, and will drift along with it. A suitable sea ice sheet (floe) was identified two days ago.
Dr. Nandan, a remote sensing scientist, will travel in a Russian icebreaker ship from the Norwegian port of Tromso in November to join the Polarstern on its second leg.
“The aim of the expedition will be to parameterise the atmospheric, geophysical, oceanographic and all other possible variables in the Arctic, and use it to more accurately forecast the changes in our weather systems. My role as a radar remote sensing specialist is to deploy radar sensors on the sea ice surface and accurately measure the ice thickness and its variations,” Dr. Nandan said over phone from Canada, where he is currently working as a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Manitoba.
Since his journey is during the Polar winter, he will not see sunlight until his return in March.
“Usually, our expeditions are for shorter periods, and we have research stations nearby for support. Here, we will be right in the middle of nowhere, in freezing cold temperatures and in complete darkness. Our biological clocks will go haywire. Communication to the outside world, and our loved ones, will also be limited,” says Dr. Nandan.
A graduate from the SCT Engineering College, Thiruvananthapuram, he quit his IT job to take up MSc in Earth Observation Sciences at ITC, in Enshcede, The Netherlands, which he completed with a gold medal.
His work became noticed when as part of the Cryosphere Climate Research Group at the University of Calgary, he was the lead author of ground breaking studies, which found that satellite measurements of seasonal sea ice that formed over the Arctic every year were likely to be incorrect by a substantial degree, as the presence of salts on snow overlying sea ice had led scientists to overestimate the thickness of the Arctic sea ice.
“This year, we have the second lowest sea ice extent in the past 50 years, accentuated by anthropogenic activities. With lesser ice cover, more of the Arctic Ocean is exposed to sunlight for longer periods, causing increase of temperatures across the Indian, Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. As the ocean gets warmer, it influences global weather patterns, causing changes in monsoon patterns and triggering more destructive cyclones. The data we will be gathering in this expedition related to these will be of immense use to the upcoming generation of young scientists,” says Dr. Nandan.