Monday, 15 August 2016

The Best of Times - Antarctica

This is a long overdue post, and one coming after a really long break.

Last 12 months have been very eventful for me, owing to a call for proposals I came across when I was looking for internships for summer 2015. It was a call for proposals for 35th Indian Scientific Expedition to Antarctica. Wishing to do something exciting, I decided to find a project. I did manage to come up with an idea, and my supervising professors at IIT Roorkee extended their support, without which I wouldn't have been able to get the necessary permissions for the project. And it was during this time that I realized that Department of Earth Sciences, IIT Roorkee has some of the most helpful alumni you will ever meet.

I don't suggest you do what I did, but I called up one of our alumni, who is one of the leading geoscientists in India, and bluntly asked him( after a brief introduction ) "what should I keep in mind while writing a research proposal". I still can't fathom how I ended up calling an esteemed, and extremely busy alumnus, who hadn't even heard of this random student from his college, AND got some good pieces of advice. The help doesn't stop here. A day after I received a mail which asked me to defend my proposal in front of a panel, I came to know that I cannot have access to the instruments necessary for my project, owing to a few rules and regulations of IIT Roorkee( I believe now that the rules that were sort of justified ). I was thoroughly dismayed. Fortunately, the alumnus I contacted offered me another project in his field, and I went on to successfully defend my proposal.

And then I was informed that I would have to undergo a training program, and pass the medical tests to qualify as a member of the 35th ISEA. I am no athlete, nor will you find me at the gym more than 5 times a semester. So, a training involving a lot of trekking was initially a scary thing for me. But I realized I had lived in the foothills of the Himalayas for 4 years as a student, and not gone on a single trek, so I should be happy that I finally got around to doing this. We were to be provided acclimatization training by Indo-Tibetan Border Police at Auli. The training program turned out to be the best days of my life( till then! ). Waking up at 5 in the morning, and watching the Sun rise from behind the peaks makes you regret city life. Auli is a wonderful place, and we were being trained by ITBP, who are the best mountaineers you will find around the place. There was more to the training than just trekking. Of course, the view from the top is worth your short breaths. You also hear your inner voice saying "I should have exercised, this isn't how a 21 year old body is supposed to react to treks". When you are being trained by people who have spent a good time of their lives in the mountains, a trek doesn't remain just that. It becomes a learning experience in all walks of life. If you want to complete the goal, don't leave anyone from your team behind. Most importantly, you never conquer the mountain, you only conquer your fear, and become a better person. The training, which includes rock climbing, rappelling, ascent and descent on ice, crevasse rescue, is a vital preparation for Antarctica where you can't be afraid of harsh environment coming your way. Since we stopped just below Mana, I also had the opportunity to visit Badrinath temple. And now my grandparents are jealous that they haven't been there! Haha!

I used to wake up to this

Badrinath Temple( pardon the clueless posture )


According to the itinerary provided, we were to report to National Center for Antarctic and Ocean Research, Goa on January 1, and were scheduled to depart on January 5. Now, imagine, new year eve in Goa! That is a dream for every college-going person in India. And what did I do? I slept at 10 pm, and woke up at 7 the next day. I committed a cardinal sin according to The College-To-Do Veda. In my defence, none of my friends had arrived and the party localities were far from my hotel. Call me boring.

Our route was Goa - > Mumbai -> Cape Town -> Novolazarevskaya runway. Cape Town is a paradise for natural tourism, and the Table top mountain is a delight for every geoscientist. We deposited our check-in bags to ALCI - Antarctic Logistics Centre International and came back to our hotels for the night.

On reaching the airport, it was a funny feeling to see "Antarctica" on the flight schedule display board. This is what I felt like:

The airplane was a cargo flight with seats fitted for around 80 people. The toilet was a chemical toilet stationed right behind the seats. Just behind the toilets was our checked-in baggages separated from us just by a thick net! You could see all the wiring while seated. Since the flight didn't have much air-conditioning, it was quite cold and got colder as we approached Antarctica. An hour before landing everyone scrambled to the tiny space between the seats and the net to fetch their bags to get their dungarees out.

In front of the aeroplane at Cape Town Airport

I am an Indian born and brought up in the Gangetic Plains. Before landing in Antarctica, I had never ever seen snow or ice around me. When I stepped down from the plane, I was too overwhelmed by all the ice to speak. Its just ice for miles and miles around.

The Novolazarevskaya runway is managed jointly by several countries including India, and Russia. Once you get off the plane there is even a small cafeteria where you can have a small breakfast. And then everyone parts their ways to their respective bases. The drive to Maitri was an hour long and filled with ice. Now that I am talking of the drive, the vehicle was a Pisten Bully fitted with a carriage to carry 8-10 people. German-make.

The best part about Antarctica is the people. You meet wonderful scientists from several countries, and a lot of people working other jobs like mechanics, electricians, cooks. And obviously, they are the best in their field, otherwise they will be gone with the strong Antarctic winds. I am sorry, I am laughing at my own poor jokes!

There is no human civilization in Antarctica, so you don't see any strangers around, you can walk anywhere in the permitted area, and not crash into a car. I have always lived in regions with high population, so it felt a little shocking to not see strange faces around.

Maitri stands right next to Priyadarshini lake, and is furnished to make an year-long stay comfortable. It has 25 personal rooms, allotted to people who are there for both summer, and winter, a kitchenette, a dining area, a lounge, two washing machines, a small gym, a table tennis room, a few bathing rooms, deep freezers, and a toilet complex. A workshop is located nearby because you need one of them to keep the station functional. There are a plethora of labs established by different organizations to gather relevant data. My work was to be in the Tirumala lab, established by National Geophysical Research Institute. For NGRI, Maitri is a permanent GPS site, and it also has a seismometer. I was to collect GPS and seismic data for the last year, during my stay there, and ensure that everything was in correct working order when we departed after a month. I also had to process and interpret the data of several sites.

Those who are bound to leave Antarctica before the onset of winter live in the summer camp. There are around 10 shipping containers, insulated and furnished with two bunk beds, a table, a chair, three closets, and a heater. Each container is designed to accommodate four people. Small space is not a worry since people go to their containers only to sleep. Close by is the summer camp toilet complex. Trust me, it is not easy to get out of your sleeping bag in the morning when you have to brace the chilly winds to get to the toilet complex.

The wide building is the station, the wooden huts are the labs, the light blue containers are residential containers, and the dark blue containers contain the toilet complex.

Next comes food. Food, like all other supplies, comes to Antarctica via a ship. Since Maitri is almost 100km from the sea coast, a convoy brings the supplies from the ship to the station. When we arrived in January, only a few days worth of fresh vegetables ration was left, since the vegetarian deep freezer broke down. The breakfast used to be good with a different dish each day of the week, like upma, noodles, cereal, parantha. Lunch and dinner alternated with chicken, mutton, fish for the non-vegetarians, and paneer, peas, corn, lentils for the vegetarians. You get bored with it after a while. At least, I lost a bit of weight.

Fortunately, in Antarctica you are never short of things to do, and field trips were aplenty. And they were probably the best part. How else are you going to see the vast expanses of uninhabited beauty.
Schirmacher Oasis is famous for the numerous lakes it has. Most of my field visits were to the front side of Maitri, i.e., further south. Schirmacher Oasis is in East Antarctica, which dates from the Precambrian period, so it has metamorphic and igneous rocks. More modern rocks are found on the top. If you keep your eyes on the ground, you will see beautiful rocks, and lots of garnets. You cannot bring back a rock or anything that belongs to Antarctica without proper permission from your home institution. One might imagine that every area is free for everyone to access. This is not true. Antarctica is to be used only for scientific studies by different countries. There is also a bit of tourism. I would personally want it to be scaled down, since I do not trust tourists to be responsible towards the pristine environment. Even to scientists, not all areas are accessible without permission. Antarctica Specially Protected Area, is managed by 13 countries, including India. These areas are off-limits to human development. A permit is needed to enter these areas. Antarctica Specially Managed Areas, which are managed by 14 countries, including India. A permit is not required to enter ASMA.

You can see the ice shelf in the background.

Sorry, I couldn't help being in the picture. The ice on Priyadarshini is bubbly because of the strong winds when it was being formed. Also, please don't go out in your running shoes, as I did. If you slip, and the ice breaks in the shallow regions, your feet will be soaked wet, and you will be cold.

One of the many lakes in Schirmacher Oasis. This one is right in front of the glacier which lies on the back side of Maitri. This sunny day was just after a period of 3 very cold days with strong winds, hence the ice on which I am standing.

We went to watch the sunset but we were a little late, but ice all around is still pretty cool.

A good friend, and moon in the sky. Could it be any better?

A first timer's biggest worry is communication from Antarctica. A summer team member is allowed 6 free minutes on the phone, so every second counts. Maitri has an internet connection, but it doesn't always work well. The internet facility was established by NRSC - National Remote Sensing Centre. It was a feat in itself, given the limited resources Indians had at their disposal. You will never hear about it in the newspapers, because such information doesn't cause any clash among communities, and doesn't pander to any particular vote bank. Also, no journalist has any vested interest in showcasing the grit shown by Indians when they accomplish tough tasks in a hostile environment without fighting on caste and religion. At Maitri, the internet functions smoothly, except for some outages. Unfortunately, the outages coincided with my stay. I am just kidding, there is nothing unfortunate about that. I had access to internet for only two weeks of my stay. I am glad I had the experience of living without internet. We really have become way too anxious about losing connectivity. It doesn't matter as much as we think it does. However, as anyone who has applied for grad school will tell you, it is tough to wait for the decisions, and it was the most anxious period of my life till date. You see, I was meeting brilliant scientists every day. Sitting on the dinner table with them filled me with doubt about myself. What if I got all rejects? What if I was stuck with nothing to do after college? So, I spent time just reading research papers, working on my dissertation, and going on field visits. Then one day, internet started working again. A few days later I received an admit. This did absolutely nothing for my self-doubt. I was now thinking "What if this is the only admit I receive? What if it was just a fluke?" Blah, blah, blah. It never pays to doubt yourself. You will only make things worse. Receiving another admit did cool me down a little bit. And internet was gone again. I don't like being in the dark. I had to wait for 12 days before I had internet access to check my mail. Fortunately there were two admits, and two rejects waiting for me in the mail. I will be joining MIT for my Ph.D. this fall.

The best part about 35th ISEA were the people. I had the opportunity to meet the people who laid the foundations of  the Indian Antarctic Program - Dr. Ajay Dhar, and Dr. Mirza Javed Beg. Both of them were part of the expedition to South Pole in 2010. If that wasn't cool enough, Dr. Beg was the one to select the site for establishment of Maitri, and Dr. Dhar was the station leader of Maitri during India's 18th Scientific Expedition to Antarctica. This is just one achievement each. Dr. Dhar also pioneered setting up several labs in Antarctica, to which several organizations owe their studies. If I were to go on listing their contributions, it would need a separate blog post.

I am glad that my first research internship was with a mentor who loved science, and encouraged me to go on the path of research. I had the good fortune to meet so many enthusiastic people, people who excelled at what they were doing, all because of this expedition. The portrayal of India by the media has been largely negative, and one would think that everything is going down the drain. But Antarctica taught me that Indians will always prevail the worst that comes their way, and things are not as bad as people would like to believe. When Dr. Syed Zahur Qasim led India's first expedition to Antarctica, and hosted the tricolour on the white continent, he ensured that courage will always be there in those who wish to build a better future for the country.

Note: I am not naming the alumnus, my supervisors, and my internship mentor to protect them from college kids sending them generic emails about summer internships.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Great read - personal and insightful.. Thanks for sharing!

  3. This is simply amazing. You are leading an amazingly adventurous and fruitful life. I am sure it has come after a lot of hard work and dedication, but I really, really envy you, maybe I want to be all that too !

  4. WoW! Mind blowing!!
    Wish i had this amazing experience :)

    Could you please share more about the work you did in antartica? Like what did you interpret from Gps and seismic data and how long were you in Antartica?