Antarctic and beyond: In conversation with Dr. Rasik Ravindra
Today we are very pleased to have Prof Rasik Ravindra former Director of National Centre for Antarctic and Ocean Research (NCAOR), to talk about Life in Antarctica. He has served as the Director of NCAOR for six years from January 2006- August 2012. He has been conducting and guiding scientific research in Antarctic, Arctic and Southern Ocean. Dr. Ravindra has led Indian Expeditions to Higher Himalaya, Antarctic, Arctic and South Pole and is currently involved with research on Himalayan glaciers.
- Dr. Ravindra thank you very much for accepting the email interview, allow me to start from the very beginning. Tell us about your journey from your school to the NCAOR.
Frankly speaking, when I was in School (Armed Forces Children High School, Ambala Cantt., during 1958-1962), we hardly knew anything about Antarctica except that it was one among the seven continents. My father was an officer in Indian Army, so we moved regularly from one place to another. Mountains, rivers and snow always fascinated me. I was told that Geology was one subject that would take you to all such places so I took up Geology as a major subject during my graduation from Science College, Jammu ( J&K) as it was one of the few colleges in northern India that taught Geology. I scored very well and on that basis was picked up by Prof W.D. West- a renowned geologist and Head of Applied Geology Deptt. of University of Saugor , Sagar M.P for post graduation ( M.Tech)
I enrolled for research at University of Roorkee (now IIT), did a short stint with Irrigation Department of U.P., before joining Geological Survey of India (GSI) in 1971 as Geologist.
I worked with GSI for 35 long years till 2005 end, rising to position of Deputy Director General. In 2006, I resigned from GSI to take up the position of Director of NCAOR.
- When was the first time you visited Antarctica, tell us about the special feeling on setting foot on the white continent.
In 1981, India sent its first expedition to Antarctica under veteran scientists S.Z. Quasim, C.P. Vohra and H.N. Siddiqui. I was working in Bhutan Himalayas under Shri C.P. Vohra that time. On his return, his account of expedition and photographs of Antarctica were so exciting that all of us working under him, longed to follow his foot steps.
After trying hard for six years, I got an opportunity during 1987 to participate as a member of Seventh Indian Expedition to Antarctica. It was big news that time. All India Radio-Shillong and Local dailies covered the news of my selection.
Even before setting the foot on white Continent the site of the frozen sea, through which our ship (M.V. Thuleland) made its way slowly towards Antarctica, was thrilling. The mighty icebergs, of different hues, shades and sizes, were captivating. These white mountains of white and blue ice appeared in tabular or pyramid shapes, majestically sailing in the calm frigid waters of Southern Ocean. As we moved closer to Antarctica, Penguins, marching in single line as disciplined soldiers, started appearing. We had never seen anything like this before. These penguins with white and black coat of feathers looked like an army of lawyers, marching without fear towards the ship. They stopped very close to the ship watched it with curiosity and satisfied, moved away some gliding on their bellies faster than we could get our cameras ready for the action.
The feeling that one would get on setting the foot on Antarctic continent itself, for the first timer, is so unique and unparallel that perhaps words can not do justice. It was realization of a life time dream for many, including me. After having ones feet on a moving platform for nearly a month, it was a nice feeling to find a stable, solid ground under your foot. There were white out conditions when we landed so we would see nothing but whiteness all around – ground, horizon and sky. So much so that sense of direction and distance got totally mixed up. Even then, we celebrated by getting down from ship on the shelf ice, where the ship was anchored, photographing endlessly with black and white , colour and transparency rolls ( this was a period before digital cameras made their way!), what ever we wanted to capture. The area looked so neat, pristine and unspoilt that one would feel sorry for leaving foot marks on the fresh snow surface.
- Since we are talking about Antarctica, the name Roald Amundsen obviously needs a mention. It is quite unimaginable to think that he was the first man to reach the South Pole more than hundred years ago! And in November 2010 you also were in this place, on the route you must have thought about Amundsen’s expedition isn’t?
It is not fair to compare iconic expedition of Amundsen with ours. Amundsen and other explorers of that period were Antarctic heroes who introduced the Antarctica to world. In addition to Amundsen, there was British Explorer-Robert Falcon Scott, the great Polar explorer who also started in the same year for South Pole but lost the race and his life along with those of his team mates, on return. The times of Amundsen, Scott and Shackleton were difficult, when the modern gadgets of communication, light Polar clothing, weather forecasting and modern means of over land transportation on snow and ice were not available. The replenishment of food and fuel was unthinkable.
On the contrary, we required only courage to take up the trip, strength to bear extreme cold and face the eventualities. I am not belittling the efforts of my team but wish to point out that we did wonder all along, how these great adventurers achieved something a hundred years before, without resources. Perhaps, I will share my diary of South Pole expedition with your readers, some times later, to highlight the high and lows of our trip.
- Of course many of us would like to know about the daily life in Antarctica. How it feels living there, I mean in a place which is no one’s nation, and nobody lives there except few scientists and researchers.
The routine of daily life in Antarctica is as different and diverse as one would expect in an inaccessible, hostile and isolated environment. Each expedition has two components- a summer team (staying for five months at the maximum, November-March) and a winter Team (staying for more than a year, November to November next or later, depending upon ship’s schedule). Though the members move together around November- December in batches to Antarctica (we have two stations -Maitri and Bharati nearly 3000 Km apart), the summer team returns by March next year while the winter component stays back for nearly a year and returns only with ship bringing replacement for subsequent expedition. The summer period is full of heavy activity, when the cargo from ship has to be downloaded, shifted to safety of stations as also to complete the scientific targets of the projects for which a scientist has come to Antarctica. There are no labourers so every job is shared by all the members irrespective of age and status. During the summer, the sun never sets, so there is day light for twenty four hours. People work as long as they can, to maximise the limited time since one never knows when the weather will turn bad with blizzards and snow fall to stop all outside activity.
During Seventh Expedition (1987-88), the construction of Maitri was initiated and all of us used to help to carry cement and iron rods to the construction site from the helipads, halting the scientific work for that time. The helicopters would come throughout the day from ship, that was anchored about a hundred Km away from the station. On a lighter side most of us had marked “ALU” (Antarctic Labour Union) in bold letters on our yellow Polar jacket. Taking a bath and washing of clothes was a luxury and had to be kept in abeyance till the visit to ship.
Most of the scientific observations such as those for collection of meteorological data would be collected after every hour (24X7). The scientists whose work involved out door activity, like that of Geologists, Botanists, Zoologists, surveyors etc would carry their pack lunch and move early.
The logistic personnel, those looking after life saving equipments like diesel generators, water supply, snow vehicles, hot water boilers etc would be on their toes from early morning to late evening. They also run convoys of vehicles to bring fuel and cargo dumped on the Ship’s berthing site to Maitri. All these convoys are run during cold winter period when the ice is hard enough to take the heavy load of cargo and tanker.
Once the ship commences its return journey, with the summer team on board, it leaves behind the winter component to continue the research and man the station during dark and cold period. The team sets a routine for itself and follows it by clock as there are no sun rises and sunsets.
This perio,d running from March to November is a tough time when members feel isolated and have to reduce their out door activities.
Things have changed to some extent with satellite connectivity of our Antarctic stations with main land in recent times. Members can now send e-mails, talk on skype and browse internet to remain in touch with home and outside world. Our stations are now equipped with modern amenities and one can take bath daily , go to gym or play in door games.
- Tell us a bit more about your incredible experience in January 1987, when you along with colleagues were trapped on the Humboldt Mountain.
We (team from GSI) had been assigned mapping of area in the Humboldt Mountains, about a hundred Km interior from our Maitri Station. MI-8 helicopter of Indian Air Force dropped seven of us (myself, N C Pant, Merin D’Souza, Amarjit Singh Gill, S. Jayaram , and two Army Officers) in the mountains along with camping gears, communication equipment and field rations. We pitched the tents, erected an emergency refuge hut and started our field surveys. After about two weeks of stay, heavy snow fall and a blizzard ran havoc at our camp, tearing the two outer layers of our living tents. The loose flaps would flutter noisily due to the heavy winds, and prevent us from sleeping. We were nearly at the end of our fuel (gas cylinder) and sub zero temperatures had discharged batteries, snapping all the means of communication. We could not dare light the gas stove to cook any food as the strong winds were shaking the flaps of tents, menacingly. Even the apples that were supplied to us had become stone hard due to freezing. Our refuge hut had lot of snow ingression that had sealed its entrance so it was of no use. Fortunately, we had 1-liter plastic bottles of Coca-Cola with us, which we kept close to our bodies in the sleeping bags to prevent these from freezing. These bottles, biscuits and dry fruits gave us energy, so badly required to sustain in extreme cold.
The weather did not improve for nearly four days. We kept ourselves busy narrating stories, incidents and keeping the morale high as we knew that was the only thing we could do to keep sane. On the fifth day, weather improved slightly but it was still not conducive to flying when we heard buzz in the air. We crossed our fingers, thinking it was a fresh blizzard when we saw a helicopter landing very close to our camp. Dr Robin Sen Gupta-the leader had sent a helicopter to rescue us in spite of a bad flying weather. We were asked to jump in leaving all our stuff in the camp as no body could take a chance with unpredictable weather. Needless to say, entire expedition team was at ship’s helipad to welcome us alive.
- Since then you have visited Antarctica many times, you have seen several research works over the years how do you think the research in Antarctica has benefited India and the scientific community as a whole?
Every single step taken by man kind to unravel mystery of Mother Nature is a milestone towards laying a foundation of development of science. The multidisciplinary scientific research undertaken by several nations including India in Antarctica has helped in understanding several natural phenomenons. Ozone depletion (Ozone hole) and its building up again; fluctuation and nature of the Polar ice cap, microbial diversity, nature of cold loving bacteria (psychrophyllic) that thrive in ice or permafrost and their pharmaceutical use, high resolution palaeoclimatic data from study of ice cores obtained from Antarctica, are only some of the prominent fields that researches in Antarctic science has given to humanity.
In the present scenario of global climate Change, Antarctic science holds the key to our understanding of the complexities of past climate processes which can help us in predicting future changes.
- Are there areas of concern in Antarctica, from environmental or global warming point of view?
Yes, there are areas of concern. Antarctica is a pristine continent that supports a fragile ecosystem. Any act of exploitation or increased anthropogenic activity is bound to have irreversible impact on its environment. Lately, scientists have recorded presence of non-native species in Antarctic soil.
The West Antarctica and Antarctic Peninsula are warming at much higher rate than some parts of Earth. Some glaciers such as Pine Island Glacier, which carries more water to the sea than Europe’s Rhine River, are thinning at alarmingly high rates. More and more areas are getting ice free in Antarctic Oases.
The climate change will impact food web change and may force some habitat change.
- What sort of measures is taken to prevent pollution in Antarctica?
Antarctica is a no man’s land and is governed by an international treaty called “Antarctic Treaty”. The environmental safeguard of Antarctica are ensured under “Madrid Protocol” that is binding on all nations that are part of Antarctic Treaty Consultative Regime (ATCM). The Protocol has a long list of Rules covered under several Articles. The prevention of pollution is dealt by CEP (Committee on Environmental Protection) -an arm of the ATCM that oversees environmental issues.
Any Antarctic Research Station can be inspected by experts from one or a group of Consultative Party nations to see if environmental upkeep norms are being followed. There are strict guidelines for waste segregation/disposal and removal from Antarctica, handling of fuel and non-interfering with wild life are also monitored.
- We would like to know about the microbial diversity in Antarctica, and what is scientifically interesting about the micro- organisms of this continent?
Antarctica supports a great biodiversity, both on mega and micro scales. There are several areas within the continents that have been declared as ASPA (Antarctica Specially Protected Areas) and ASMA (Antarctica Specially Managed Areas) to preserve and protect the unique flora/fauna. The Zoological survey of India ( ZSI) and Botanical Survey of India ( BSI) have documented in detail the biodiversity, NCAOR ( national Centre for Antarctica and Ocean Research has published a monograph on Lichens of Schirmacher area of Antarctica, while the microbial biodiversity has been researched by CCMB ( Centre for Cellular Microbiology).
This not being my subject, I can’t contribute much on the issue except that some micro-organisms that can survive in extreme cold may prove to be useful in pharmaceutical industry.
- After many trips to Antarctica do you think the landscape of this place presents a rare sight? Other than the blizzards, ice and the terrible cold what is there in Antarctica which pleases the eye and the mind?
I often reproduce famous quote of Andrew Denton as a response to the frequently asked question on rare sight of Antarctica. I quote it again:
“If Antarctica were music it would be Mozart. Art and it would be Michelangelo. Literature and it would be Shakespeare.
And yet it is something even greater;
The only place on Earth that is still,
As it should be”
More than this, while driving on barren, lifeless, icy wilderness of Antarctic Plateau for miles and miles without any sign of change in the terrain, during our South Pole endeavor, I realized that Antarctica is one place on our earth that is incomparable when we imagine Vastness, depth and emptiness put together.
One realizes how insignificant ones existence is, how miniscule a man is, in a place where even time freezes. So much so that all our ego vanishes leaving one as light as air!