Published in The Hindu on December 15, 2011
The first Indian expedition to the South Pole successfully reached the Pole last year, almost a century (99 years to be precise) after the Norwegian Roald Amundsen became the first human to reach the southernmost point of the Earth.
The eight-member team left the Indian base station Maitri situated in an ice-free area known as the Schirmacher Oasis on November 13, 2010 and reached the South Pole in nine days on November 22, 2010.
“We travelled the entire distance of nearly 2,500 km in special vehicles got from Iceland,” said Dr. Rasik Ravindra, who was the Leader of the team. “We can’t compare our journey with Roald Amundsen’s and Robert Scott’s. Theirs was a heroic effort. They did a hundred years ago something that we can’t even dream of.”
Dr. Ravindra is the Director of the Goa-based National Centre for Antarctic and Ocean Research (NCAOR).
Coming from a veteran like Dr. Ravindra, these words have greater significance and meaning. He has almost lost count of the number of trips made to the icy continent. “I think it is 7 or 8 times,” he said to this Correspondent over phone. There have been 30 Indian expeditions to Antarctica since the first one in 1981.
Even in the comfort of the special vehicle, the 2,500-long journey was not a joy ride. “The terrain makes it difficult to travel,” he said. After all, the base station is almost at sea level and the South Pole is at an elevation of nearly 2,500 metres. And on the way, one has to cross a plateau that is 3,600 metres above MSL.
But it is not the terrain alone that makes the journey or staying in the continent difficult. Temperatures can dip to a minimum of -55 degree C in summer and to -89 degree C in winter. Add to this the wind factor. If normal wind speed is 22-30 km per hour, it can go beyond 200 kmph as well.
And the result is a blizzard or snow storm, just like sand storms in deserts. “It’s due to surface drift,” he stated. A combination of both high wind speed and increase in temperature (warmer temperature) is needed for blizzards.”
Extra-tropical low-pressure systems always move from west to east in the coastal region. The warm and moist air from lower latitudes mixes with dry, cold wind in the higher latitudes. When this happens the temperature increases gradually. When the wind speed goes beyond 40 kmph loose snow gets lifted. The end result is a blizzard.
Blizzards are restricted to coastal regions in the lower latitudes (60 to 70 degree South) and are not seen in higher latitudes (near the Pole).
“It’s dangerous and people can get lost in the blizzard,” he said. “We are either in the camp or inside the vehicle [during blizzards], or else… Sometimes yes, we do get trapped… we can’t always predict.”
When the temperature increases they know a storm is building up, but are not always lucky to have a good shelter. Being geologists, they are out in the field conducting experiments, collecting data and samples. Mountains are where they work and since these places are 80 km away from the base camps, they are air dropped by helicopters.
Dr. Ravindra can never forget his experience in January 1987. The 5-member team had camped on Humboldt Mountain for field work. And then suddenly the blizzard set in and sustained for seven long days. The four-layered tent was their only shelter.
But three layers of the tent soon got ripped off. And they were left with a single-layered tent! Though the sleeping bags came to their rescue to keep them warm, they could not sleep for 3 to 4 days. “There was so much noise,” he recalled.
“We kept Campa Cola bottles inside our sleeping bags to prevent them from freezing. The Cola and biscuits were our only food,” he said. “But we survived.” The helicopter returned when the blizzard stopped, and to everyone’s surprise found them in good health.
Things have changed. “We can now predict blizzards with high levels of certainty,” said E. Kulandaivelu, Director of the Regional Meteorological Centre, Chennai. “We use satellite images, satellite wind data, real-time observation from different observatories located in Antarctica to predict blizzards.” Mr. Kulandaivelu has been to the Antarctic twice (December 1989 to March 1991, and December 1999 to March 2001).
But not every trip ends on a happy note, though. The November 1989-April 1991 expedition was very different. The Indian team lost a couple of lives due to carbon monoxide poisoning in the shelter tent.
But you don’t need blizzards to make your trip to Antarctica unique and unforgettable. When temperatures drop below -50 degree C a facemask is used. It has an opening for the eyes and two small holes for the nose. While goggles protect the eyes, there is no such protection for the nostrils.
The air they breathe out is warmer and moisture tends to come out of the nose. “Must wipe the moisture constantly,” he warned. “Else you would have ice crystals hanging from the nose!”
When it is not so cold, and when the facemask is not worn, snow and ice can settle on the nose and even eyelids!
If conducting experiments and collecting data are part of a daily routine, can taking notes be far behind? Unfortunately, taking notes or drawing some features is not possible with a gloved hand. “You have to remove the gloves for a few minutes…and your fingers get numb. You soon wear the gloves and keep your palm under the armpit to warm them,” said Dr. Ravindra.
How does it feel when there is just white all around? “It’s like seeing blue all around when you in open sea,” he says. But his memory quickly rewinds and he says, “you can’t see any bird, tree or building… you see nothing. There is vastness and emptiness all time around you. The vastness makes you realise how small you are… a speck of dust on Earth.”
The feeling of emptiness is particularly heightened during winter when it is dark 24 hours a day for six months at a stretch. Little wonder that it is mandatory for all participants staying back for the winter session to undergo psychological tests which check for ability to withstand isolation.