In a land of ice and adventures: Blizzards, hidden crevasses and a 43-day wait

Anuradha Mascarenhas
Avinash Sharma, NCCS scientist, at Antarctica.

Those who embark on a scientific expedition to Antarctica are warned about setbacks like frostbite and dehydration. But what 12 scientists members of the 38th Indian scientific expedition to the coldest place on earth on board the ship Vasily Golovnin weren t quite prepared for was the experience of being stuck in the freezing ice for 43 days.

One of the 12 scientists, part of a 26-member expedition team, was Dr Avinash Sharma (35), the first scientist from the Pune-based National Centre for Cell Science (NCCS) to travel to Antarctica. Among the many experiences he and his teammates are unlikely to forget was that of facing a cyclone, strong enough to tilt the ship he was on by 42 degrees.

Sharma s scientific proposal to understand the total microbial community in the Antarctic and check the specific adaptation of previously unknown Psychrophilic prokaryotes in the Antarctic environment was given a go-ahead by the National Centre for Antarctic and Ocean Research in Goa. After undergoing both physical and mental training at the centre, Sharma flew from Goa to Cape Town on January 18 and joined 25 other teammates, including scientists and researchers from various institutions in the country, to undertake their journey by ship to Antarctica.

The journey usually takes seven days but it took us 17 days due to extreme weather conditions… to cross the ice sheet and anchor our ship to the Echo Indian Barrier, around 120 km from the Indian Maitri station at Antarctica. Later, it took another 26 days to come out of that ice, shared Sharma while speaking at the 38th Indian Scientific Expedition to Antarctica: A tale of uncertainty, patience and endurance at the NCCS on Tuesday.

Research scientists make the two Indian stations in Antarctica – Maitri and Bharati – their home during these expeditions, which last from two to three months up to one year. Sharma said the other scientists with him had a different mandate, as some from the Indian Space Research Organisation were involved in satellite imaging, while others used probes to check how climate change was affecting the glaciers in the region.

I had to collect sediment samples and this required a certain amount of expertise. We wanted to check anti-freezing genes and proteins and any other novel mechanism of microbes to understand how they were surviving. Data shows that 99 per cent of the microbes are not cultivable. However, one per cent of the microorganisms are cultivable and there are plenty of products that are discovered from this fraction. Cultivating the remaining 99 per cent can be useful in the discovery of novel secondary metabolites, which are still unknown to us. So, the sediment samples will be stored at low temperatures to maintain that atmospheric environment, explained Sharma.

A 25-member team usually stays at the stations throughout winter, for both scientific and logistical purposes. Since flying is not always an option, several groups of scientists travel by ship. Getting acclimatised to the extreme weather conditions, in a place where a blizzard can last for over two days, is a daunting task. The do s and don ts explained to us prior to our expedition were extremely useful… these included going in a buddy pair, carrying an extra pair of snow glasses and sipping water at regular intervals, said Sharma.

Crevasses, in particular, are a hidden danger in Antarctica and helicopters have to fly at low altitudes t spot them. One has to be extremely careful, said the NCCS scientist.

The expedition, meanwhile, took the Indian team 99 days instead of the usual 60 days or so. Their ship was anchored near Bharati Maitri station, as the ice sheet had become thicker after the blizzard and ship didn t have the capacity to break it and make its way through.

We started on March 26 but were stuck till April 27… we were unable to move even 500 metres. There were several rescue teams and back-up plans, but with the wind speed at 80 nautical miles, we were told to wait, said Sharma.
They finally returned to India on May 6.