Arctic region, now new destination for Indian researchers

Written by ASHOK B SHARMA | Updated: Aug 9 2007, 08:16am hrs
After strengthening its research activities in Antarctica, India is slated to explore the Arctic region, particularly in relation to the changing environment of the region and its possible impact on global climate and Asian monsoon. It will also explore the biodiversity of the region with and suggest measures for its conservation and sustainable use.

Indian scientists, with their activities in the two polar regions, intend to give a boost to the ongoing global polar studies in the International Polar Year 2007-08, co-sponsored by International Council of Science (ICSU) and the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO). International Polar Year (IPY) has been launched to commemorate 50 years of International Geophysical Year (IGY) 1957-58.

During IGY, extensive cooperative research was initiated in the atmospheric and oceanic realm with focus on the difficult polar regions, which finally lead to the signing of Antarctic Treaty in 1959. The focus of IPY 2007-08 is poles and their relevance to the rest of the world. IPY themes are closely linked to the assessment of global environment and climate change, prevention and mitigation of natural disasters, environmental conservation and sustainable human development. More than 60 nations including India, are participating in IPY by conducting research in physical, biological and social sciences in the Arctic and Antarctic.

India will now join the race with countries like Norway, Germany, France, Britain, Italy, Japan, South Korea and China in research and exploration of the Arctic region, says the Union minister for science and technology and earth sciences, Kapil Sibal.

On August 3, 2007 the minister flagged off the countrys first scientific expedition to the Arctic region under the leadership of the director of National Centre for Antarctic and Ocean Research (NCAOR), Rasik Ravindra. Among other members of the team are SM Singh from NCAOR, deputy director of the Hyderabad based Centre for Cellular and Micro Biology (CCMB), S Shivaji, CG Deshpande from Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology, Pune, and Dhruv Sen Singh from the University of Lucknow.

Unlike in Antarctica where India has its own research stations, in the Arctic region it would use the research facilities provided by Norway. India is a signatory to the Svalbard Treaty of 1920, which permits it to operate in the Svalbard archipelago, which is under the sovereign control of Norway. Many nations are already using the Ny-lesund research facilities operated by Norway at Spitsbergen island, while some have developed their own set up as well, including some Asian nations such as Japan, South Korea and China.

In the last few years initiatives were taken up by the then department of ocean development (which is now upgraded as Union ministry of earth sciences), to work out an Arctic research programme to complement our work in the Antarctica; so as to contribute to the global research by providing countrys expertise in the polar sciences. The NCAOR), being the designated nodal agency for polar research in India, held discussions with Norwegian Polar Research Institute (NPR), to develop a collaborative Arctic research programme.

Subsequently Sibal visited Norway in mid November 2006 and during the discussions, Arctic research was identified as a key area of cooperation in scientific research and development between the two nations. The Indian delegation, which also included the secretary in the ministry of earth sciences, PS. Goel visited the Norwegian Polar Research Institute (NPRI) at Tromso.

The Norwegian minister for higher education Oystein Djupendal later visited India during June 2007. Apart from holding discussions at Delhi, the delegation visited the Indian polar research facility at NCAOR in Goa. After seeing the Indian research facilities, Djupendal was convinced that both the countries should cooperate and collaborate on polar research.

Earlier the leader of the Norgewian delegation to the XXX Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting held in Delhi in May, this year, John E Guuldahl and the NPRI director, Jan-Gunnar Winther had discussed the modalities for Indian research programme in the Arctic region

Arctic Ocean and the surrounding regions are one of the most important areas that not only govern the earths climate but have maintained the record of its past climatic history. The region is also an excellent indicator of future changes, because the signals or clues that signify climate change are so much stronger in the Arctic than elsewhere on the planet. The thermo-haline circulation that originates in the northern Atlantic and southern Arctic is the major force that drives not only the oceanic circulation but also regulate the global climate. Possible changes in this global circulation can pose a threat to Arctic region and thereby to the global climate, sea level, biodiversity. The region is also of special significance to the Indian subcontinent as studies have shown that there exists a tele-connection between the northern polar region and the intensity of Indian monsoon. However the exact mechanism by which this tele-connection functions is still not fully understood as yet, said the secretary in the Union ministry of earth sciences, PS Goel.

Sibal said that a new scheme for Arctic expeditions and research programmes, to be implemented by NCAOR, has been included in the XI Plan proposal of the ministry of earth sciences. The Arctic research programme envisages sending Indian scientists to Spitsbergen island in the Svalbard archipelago in 2007-08 and 2008-09 seasons while it is proposed to send full fledged oceanographic expeditions to Arctic in our research vessel during the Arctic summer of 2009-10 and 2011-12.

At present Norway, Germany, France, Britain, Italy, Japan, South Korea and China, have their research stations in Ny-Alesund for Arctic research. Of these, the German-French station is run as a collaborative endeavor, with the scientists from both the nations sharing the living and research facilities. In addition, Russia has plans to establish its station during July-August 2007. Of the various nations, only Norway, Germany, France and China have winter programs, while the scientists from the other nations visit their respective stations for short durations during the spring-to-autumn months. Norway maintains two bases at Ny-Alesund- Sverdrupstasjonen (Sverdrup Research Station) and the Zeppelin Station. At the Sverdup station, continuous measurements of radiation, air pollution, ozone, seismic activity, etc. are carried out. The Zeppelin station on the mountain (elevation 473 m above MSL) which is accessible by a cable car from Ny-Alesund, undertakes atmospheric monitoring and research as a collaborative endeavor with the Stockholm University. The facilities at the station include GC-MS for CFC measurements, instrumentation for year-round observations of aerosol microphysics, carbon dioxide, CO, methane, halogenated greenhouse gases, elemental gaseous mercury.

Other major scientific activities by the different stations include - Black carbon particles in snow (Norwegian/Swedish/US Group), marine ecosystem studies (Norway-IPY endeavor), glacier monitoring (China, Norway), maintaining a GPS tracking station (China, Norway), Geodetic measurements (by NPR), a collaborative research programme between AWI and French Institute Polaire Francais with year-round observations dedicated to the global Network for the Detection of Atmospheric Composition Change (NDACC), research programmes related to global change especially in glaciology and terrestrial and freshwater ecosystems by the BAS, atmospheric sciences programs and biological investigations related to global change (National Research Council of Italy), rocket studies of the dayside polar cusp, cleft and cap and processes in the magnetospheric boundary layer (Norwegian Space Centre at Andova Rocket Range), glaciology and climate research (by NIPR, Japan), atmospheric physics, glaciology and marine biology studies (KOPRI, Korea), atmospheric science, Aurora physics, biology, glaciology, paleoclimatology, geology and marine science (China), and variation and change in Arctic ecosystems (the Netherlands University of Groningen).

Speaking about Indias research agenda in the Arctic region, Sibal said that NCAOR had invited proposals from scientists in various national institutions with a sustained interest in studies of the polar realm and a total of 14 proposals were received. The proposals were then discussed with the Norwegian counterparts and subsequently certain specifi projects were finalized to be undertaken at Spitsbergen in 2007-08.

According to the agreements reached with the Norwegian counterparts, in the first phase of the programme Indian scientist will work with NPRI on three projects like the use of Arctic microbes as work horses of biotechnology, measurement of atmospheric aerosols and ions in the Arctic region and earth science studies at Svalbard. They would work for a period of two to four weeks in August-September 2007.

From the Indian side CCMB, Hyderabad would participate in the project for the use of Arctic microbes as work horses of biotechnology, IITM, Pune would work for measurement of atmospheric aerosols and ions in the Arctic region and NCAOR and MS University, Vadodra would join the project for earth sciences study in the Arctic region.

Four projects have also been identified to be undertaken in the second phase of the programme which would begin from early spring next year in February 2008. In the second phase, the Delhi based National Physical Laboratory would work on snow pack production of carbon monoxide and its diurnal variability while NCAOR would undertake carbon cycling in the near shore environment of Kongsfjorden, sea ice microbial communities project and understanding the link between the Arctic and tropical Indian Ocean climatic variations.

The research base, Ny-Alesund is situated at 78 55 N, 11 56 E on the west coast of Spitsbergen, the largest island in the Svalbard archipelago of Norway. The settlement is the home to around 30 scientists and logistics persons serving the research station all year-round. Svalbard archipelago includes all landmasses between 74 and 81 degrees North and between 10 and 35 degrees East, as well as the sea inside a territorial boundary stretching out 4 nautical miles from land. The total land area is about 63,000 km and two thirds of this area is permanently covered by ice and glaciers. The whole Svalbard archipelago is part of the high Arctic region with permafrost. The vegetation in the area varies from sparse ground cover to the meadow-like vegetation which are important breeding site of the local birds.

Ny-Alesund and Svalbard in general are easily accessed during most of the year. The climate is mild in relation to the general northerly latitudes, on account of the remnants of the Gulf Stream that flows northwards from mainland Norway up the west coast of Spitsbergen. The mean temperature in the coldest month (February) is -14C, while the warmest month (July) has a mean temperature of +5C.

Since 1916 the Norwegian Public Corporation Kings Bay AS (Kings Bay) has owned and run Ny-Alesund. In addition, the State-owned company owns the entire Brgger peninsula and most of the area around the Kongsfjord. Kings Bay AS manages all necessary services in the community such as the provision of food, electricity and water. Kings Bay is also responsible for the maintenance of buildings and roads, the disposal of refuse and sewage and runs the post office, the hotel, the local store as well as Ny-Alesund's airport and quay. All scientific activities are implemented at Ny-Alesund in consultation with the Kings Bay as well as the Ny-Alesund Science Managers Committee (NySMAC), comprising 14 research institutions/universities from Norway, Germany, Italy, Japan, Korea, UK, Sweden, France and the Netherlands. NySMAC ensures that ongoing and planned research is not in conflict with environmental laws and regulations, and provides advice and comments on issues such as research planning and coordination, infrastructure development and environmental protection.