Indian scientist Felix Bast reports from the field in Antarctica

On January 9, Dr. Felix Bast from the Centre for Plant Sciences, Central University of Punjab was one of the 30 Indian scientists to reach Bharati, India’s third research station in Antarctica. The team set out on a voyage to Bharti station from Cape Town, South Africa on December 24, 2016 on board the ship MV Ivan Papanin.  It took them 16 days to reach Antarctica.

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Photo: Felix Bast

“We were 5 km away from Antarctica on January 5 but breaking through the sea ice took many days. The ship reverse sails 5-10 ship lengths and bangs on the ice on full throttle to break it a few meters. The process repeats all over. From the ship we walked on the sea ice (around 2 metres thick, below which lies the cold polar ocean) very cautiously not to step on crevasses to reach the station,” he writes on Facebook.

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Fisher Island, East Antarctica. – Photo: Felix Bast

The Poles experience six months of continuous darkness in winter and six months of continuous daytime in summer. “Sun never sets here and noon and midnight are all same. I expected midnight sun would be like twilight, but I was wrong,” he writes.

In an email to me he says: “It’s mostly minus 10 degrees C but we have full clothing gears outside. The inside temperature [at  Bharati, the Indian station] hovers around 20, which is just alright.”

So how does he sleep in the night when there is bright sunshine? “For sunshine, it’s simple, we pull down our window curtains. Rooms are built out of container ships here in the station,” he says.

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At Fisher Island, East Antarctica. – Photo: Felix Bast

He will stay at two of India’s research stations, Bharati at Larseman Hills and Maitri, Schirmarcher Oasis for approximately 30 days each before returning by April 2017. “We will be at Bharati station till February 10, after which voyage to Maitri — India’s second research station around 3,000 km westward from here will begin,” he tells me. “With this expedition, Central University of Punjab (CUPB) will become the first new central university in the country to have an active polar research programme.”

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Off Sandercock Island. – Photo: Felix Bast

Dr. Bast will work on DNA barcode-based assessment of algal diversity of Antarctica and see how climate change affects species distribution, including species invasions. Ice and snow algal diversity from East Antarctica remain virtually unknown. The target locations from where samples will be collected include the Schirmacher Oasis, Larsemann Hills, and Ingrid Christensen Coast and other sampling points during the voyage between these two stations. Other potential locations (to be explored depending on the prevailing weather conditions) include Gorce Mountains, Signy Islands, Vestfold Hills, Taylor Valley, Victoria Island, Windmill Islands and McMurdo Sound. “Almost everyday we have helicopter sorties to visit various islands, lakes and glaciers around the station,” says Dr. Bast.

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The ship M V Ivan Papanin, docked on Antarctic ice. – Photo: Felix Bast

“I’ve also recorded a very unusual mode of spore dispersal of fresh water algae from the lakes of Antarctic islands; the spores fly around,” he says. “Among my collection is a curious drift specimen of large red seaweed, perhaps Palmaria palmata, definitely a species introduction.” He has so far collected a few samples of ice algae from glaciers of Ingrid Christensen Coast, Antarctica, what appears to be a species of Mesotaenium.

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McLeod Island, Larsemann Hills, Antarctica. – Photo: Felix Bast

Antarctica’s biodiversity conservation is governed by two treaties — Antarctic Treaty System (ATS) and Annex V of the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty (Madrid Protocol) —  under which 73 Antarctic Specially Protected Areas (ASPAs) exist. “The samples will not be collected from any of those 73 ASPAs.  So, we will not be violating any of these treaties,” Dr. Bast emphasis.

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Bharati, India’s 3rd station in Antarctica. – Photo: Felix Bast

Samples collected from Antarctica will be will be stored in freezer storage (-20°C) either in the vessel or in the field stations (Maitri/Bharati) and brought back to the lab in CUPB for further studies — DNA barcode-based species delineation, phylogeographic assessment, including tracing the dispersal routes of invasive species, if any, and microscopy.

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Dalk Glacier, Antarctica. – Photo: Felix Bast

Although poorly studied, species introductions are one of the biggest ecological disasters. “A systematic DNA barcode-based characterisation of algal and phytoplankton diversity from the Antarctica is expected to reveal the routes of species introductions and unfold relationship with global warming,” he says. “In addition, a huge potential exist for the discovery of new species of algae and phytoplankton that could have bioprospecting applications.”

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Antarctic Snow petrel. – Photo: Felix Bast

“We will make all attempts to bring only a minuscule amount of plant material (10 gram per isolate per locality) for the purpose of DNA barcoding. So out work is not expected to have any adverse impact on the regional biodiversity,” Dr. Bast says.

“This is a long-term project that will last for next five years, with five sequential summer visits to Antarctica by me and my Ph.D scholar Pushpendu Kundu,” he says.

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