In the land of snow and ice

Jayaram Srinivasan  

“The leopard seal is like Kumbhkarna. It loves to sleep and can do so for up to an entire month.” This was one of the nuggets of information that Jayaram Srinivasan presented his audience with as he shared his adventures in Antarctica with humans, animals and the elements alike at Mango Education’s 86th Mango Open House session. A geologist, Jayaram was a member of the fifth Indian Antarctica Expedition between 1986 and 1988 and the 23rd Indian Expedition in 2003, this time as the Expedition Leader.

He began by telling us about how the name Antarctica came about to signify “opposite to the Arctic”. A photograph of a sharp, sunny day with snow as far as the eye could see was projected. Jayaram grinned as he explained that it was taken at midnight. Amid gasps, he informed us the sun does not set in Antarctica between December and March (the summer months).

Here, on the world’s highest continent, the only human activity is that of scientific research. In the early 20th Century whales were hunted down in the waters surrounding Antarctica. However, since the 1950s the land has been used for research. India’s first expedition in 1981, a brainchild of then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, was a top-secret one. Dakshin Gangotri became the first Indian station built entirely on an ice-shelf. Completed in 1983, it was subsequently submerged in the ice. Jayaram worked at Maitri, the second Indian research station. Built a little inland, the station is surrounded by a lake from where the scientists have access to “the sweetest and purest water ever. Water that no RO could parallel”.

Some cold facts
  • The warmest average temperature (December) recorded was 1.6° Celsius and the coldest (July) was -17.6° Celsius
  • June 21 is celebrated as Midwinter Day across the research units of all the nations in Antarctica
  • Antarctica is one of the world’s driest deserts. It experiences hardly any rainfall or snow. The frozen desert covers around 14.2 million square kilometres
  • Antarctica was first sighted in 1820 and Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole on December 14, 1911. He was the first to use dogs and sledges in the region to travel across the snow
  • The rocks found in Antarctica are the same as those found in South India, a sign that the continents were a part of the same landmass at one point
  • No country can claim land in Antarctica. It is the best example of cooperation between multiple nations in the world. No one fought over the Antarctic Treaties.

He smiled reminiscently as he recounted his days at the station, which was equipped with a gym, a well-stocked kitchen with two professional cooks (one from the Army and one from the Indo-Tibetan Border Police), and what seemed like an endless supply of basmati rice of the highest quality. “We were sick of basmati by the end of it. We were craving some Andhra variety”, chuckled Srinivasan. Fruits were brought in when ships arrived from Cape Town.

Jayaram spoke of the Aurora Australis (Southern Lights) that danced across the skies in brilliant flashes of green and purple when magnetic storms occurred. Perhaps the only relief from the sheer white surroundings. In the summers when the sun didn’t set, the scientists would sleep by the watch (their residential units were insulated to block out the light from outside).

Working on collecting rock samples and drilling for ice cores, Jayaram also partnered with the Russians on geology- and glaciology-related research. The 2004-2005 expedition’s scientific objectives involved studying earth sciences, glaciology and global change; meteorology and atmospheric sciences; bio and environmental sciences; engineering and communication; and human physiology and psychology.

Jayaram recalled the chill they felt when a colleague recorded off-the-chart seismic activities on December 26, 2014. After being used to recording earthquakes not more than six or seven on the Richter Scale (Antarctica is seldom the epicentre of earthquakes), this time it had gone past nine. They learnt about the deadly tsunami that devastated South and South East Asia only later.

Speaking of the true natives of Antarctica, the penguins, Jayaram showed us a picture of a rookery (colony of penguins) with around one lakh birds, each sitting with an egg between its legs. The penguins don’t move for up to three months till the eggs hatch. They are found only close to the shores as they require the water. On its arrival, the team was greeted by a group of penguins. Speaking of the squaw or scavenging bird, Jayaram said “If it was spotted next to the research stations, it signified an unclean environment and the station was expected to shut down altogether. Any form of pollution was out of question in Antarctica.” Another bird spotted close to the coast is the albatross, says Jayaram and I recall Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner. This time, however, no bird was shot, and all was well.

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Printable version | Jul 29, 2021 10:18:07 PM |

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