Going to Antarctica

Two hundred and seventy million years ago,when the Gondwanaland super continent broke apart...

Written by Shyam Saran | Published: March 8, 2009 11:45 pm

Hidden beneath Antarctica’s icy sheets are several mysteries,including one of how the rapidly warming continent could spell trouble for the entire planet. Shyam Saran,the PM’s special envoy on climate change,visits the Norwegian research station in Antarctica and comes back overwhelmed by the forbidding beauty of the continent

Two hundred and seventy million years ago,when the Gondwanaland super continent broke apart,the Antarctic land mass drifted away from the Indian Deccan and began its long journey towards the southern oceans. Today,an ice-covered continent of 14 million square kilometres,Antarctica still carries evidence of our common ancestry in its geological structures and petrified wood fragments,harking back to an age when it shared a warmer clime with its more northerly siblings.

The chance to visit Antarctica came my way a couple of weeks ago,courtesy Erik Solheim,the Norwegian Minister for Environment and Development. Erik was kind enough to invite a dozen ministers and special representatives dealing with climate change,from across the world,to visit the Norwegian research station in the Antarctica,known as the Troll. The objective of this exciting adventure was to obtain a first hand view of the impact of climate change and global warming on one of the most pristine and fragile regions of our planet.

We all gathered together at the lovely South African city of Cape Town,where we had an enforced stay for a couple of days,waiting for favourable weather to be able to fly out to the Troll. We finally left late in the evening on February 22 for an overnight flight to the Troll aboard a chartered C-130 Hercules cargo aircraft. The plane had specially configured seats for our use,but the noise levels inside precluded much conversation. Anticipatory excitement overcame discomfort and fatigue. Ten hours later,after several spells of interrupted sleep,we found ourselves flying into a clear and shimmering dawn,with the shining blue of the ocean below soon merging into a vast desert of crystal white ice and occasional grey rock,interspersed with rolling dunes of snow. In the narrow confines of our cabin,we had to perform many gyrations and contortions to get into our bulky polar gear,to face the Antarctic cold.

Our aircraft landed smoothly on an icy airstrip,about 6 kilometres from the Troll. Emerging from the aircraft,we were hit with a blast of icy wind,painful in its intensity. Soon we were surrounded by our hosts from the Troll,all dressed in crimson polar suits exactly like ours,the signature gear from the Norwegian Polar Institute and a colourful contrast to the forbidding white of the ice around us.

Ranged on the side of the air strip were several snow tractors with chain tracks. Our “bus” was an open trailer on sleds,pulled by the tractor. Wooden benches had been bolted on to the trailer,on which we parked ourselves,hunkered down with blankets and rugs to protect ourselves from the cold and biting wind. It was minus 15° C and with the wind chill,closer to minus 25° C.

During the 20-minute ride to the Troll,we surveyed our immediate environs. We were trundling along a flat,frozen surface. There were,scattered here and there,grey,beige and brown rocks and boulders,breaking the monotony of the vast icy field. Ahead of us,were jagged rocky outcrops and low hilly features,beyond which we could already make out the first signs of human habitation.

The Troll is a collection of metal huts strung along a radius of about 2 kilometres,in the shadow of a low lying ridge. The largest structure is crimson red,housing the main living quarters. This was our base for the day and its warm,almost toasty interior was welcome relief after our freezing journey. The Troll boasted all creature comforts,including a well-stocked kitchen,toilets and showers and a computer room with Wi-fi internet.

During our day long sojourn at the Troll,we were briefed on its sophisticated scientific research capabilities. We visited the local weather station and the communication base. And during the afternoon,before boarding our flight back to Cape Town,we spent some time at Jutulsessen,where a breathtaking landscape of massive rock cliffs and sculpted ice structures tell the story of Antarctica’s history as well as its current condition. We met members of the Norwegian-American Traverse,which had just completed an epic journey of over 2,000 kilometres from the South Pole to the Troll,mapping the hidden terrain of the continent,under its ice-cap,using sensitive radars and sonar equipment. It was a brief but enriching plunge into the mysteries of the Antarctica. The story is exciting but also replete with intimations of a dark and threatening future for our entire planet.

The Antarctica was once a vast continent blessed with a tropical environment and thick vegetation. There are high mountain ranges and deep valleys buried under thick layers of ice. More intriguing is the recent discovery that there are also vast,fresh water lakes of great depth,warmed by the heat rising from the earth’s molten core. The members of the Traverse were excited at having found two more such fresh water lakes lying deep underneath the canopy of ice.

The worrying signs were perhaps not visible to our untrained eyes,but the scientists at the Troll left us in no doubt about the impact of global warming on the continent’s fragile ecology. Analysis of ice cores from deep within layers of ice revealed that carbon levels in the atmosphere were much less in the past than they are today. Sea temperatures around Antarctica have risen by about 2 degrees C in the last 50 years. The ice cap is thinning inexorably. Recent atmospheric analysis had revealed contaminants from southern Africa,Latin America and Australia. Earlier theories about Antarctica’s climate being a closed and independent vortex,not influenced by weather patterns elsewhere,were no longer valid. Conditions were changing rapidly and unpredictably but data was sparse and not always reliable. But if the continent’s ice cap were to melt away,it is estimated that sea-levels would rise by 70 metres.

What is encouraging is that 30-odd countries,including India,have research stations across this region and are working,collaboratively,round the clock,to fill the huge gaps in our knowledge. India’s own research base,Maitri,enjoys an excellent reputation among Antarctica experts. Though seven countries,including Norway,have territorial claims here,the 1959 Antarctica Treaty has,mercifully,put these on hold and declared the region a peaceful zone,exclusively for scientific research and exploration. This spirit of collaboration is what engenders the hope that the pristine ecology of the Antarctica will endure,and the impact of climate change will be halted and reversed before our entire planet is threatened by a deluge of Biblical proportions.

We returned to Cape Town a sombre lot,overwhelmed by the terse and forbidding beauty of Antarctica,but anxious that its icy vastness harboured mankind’s destiny as well.

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