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Indian scientists in Antarctica are under their own version of a lockdown

Pradeep Tomar, medical officer at India's Bharati station in Antarctica.
All alone.

Antarctica is the coldest, driest and windiest continent on earth. The extreme conditions of Antarctica have ensured that the environment here is in pristine shape and have also made it the most isolated place on the planet.

I have been here since November last year, as the medical officer to the 39th Indian Scientific Expedition to Antarctica (pdf). The continent is home to around 70 active research bases belonging to various countries. These bases house more than 4,000 people during the summer and around 1,000 people in winter. They spend an entire year in isolation, conducting research projects on the icy continent.

The journey

India has maintained a strong presence in Antarctica since 1981. Every year, summer and winter teams are sent to two Indian research bases, Maitri and Bharati, to carry out diverse scientific studies. This year, the winter team has 23 members deployed at the Bharati station. It is my responsibility to conduct regular health check-ups to ensure the physical and mental wellbeing of my teammates.

The situation on the continent feels uncommon this year, with the worrisome outbreak of coronavirus in India. Back in November last year when the expedition had just begun, the world seemed to be in its usual state. A month into the expedition, we started hearing the news about the spread of coronavirus. Now, we don’t really know much about the situation back home. Members are worried about their near and dear ones as India has moved into Lockdown 3.0.

We had never imagined that the whole world would be in a situation similar to ours.

India’s Bharati station at Antarctica.

Isolation and confinement come as a gift as soon as you put your feet on the frozen continent. There is a constant threat to life when you are here. The vast sheets of ice are packed with hidden crevices and it is difficult to retrieve anyone who falls through them.

We are already into polar winter so the temperature at our base can go down to -40 degree celsius and the wind speed can be as fast as 200 km per hour. It will remain completely dark for almost two months during the polar night when the sun hides below the horizon.

Before we arrived here, we went through training to prepare us to battle all the hardships and adversities we would face in Antarctica. But social isolation and lack of sunlight put us at risk of developing low moods and depression. To keep boredom away, we have a library, theatre, and indoor games. All members take part in routine tasks like cleaning and community cooking. These activities serve to bring a sense of togetherness among the members and keep us close.

That’s what people around the world are now replicating, as they are stuck within the walls of their homes, seeing the same faces every day.

With the worldwide spread of Covid-19, things have changed in Antarctica too, even though it remains the only continent untouched by the coronavirus.

With the worldwide spread of Covid-19, things have changed in Antarctica too, even though it remains the only continent untouched by the coronavirus. Despite being the most secluded continent, Antarctica is also facing a lockdown. In light of the pandemic, guidelines have been issued by the Council of Managers of National Antarctic Programmes, an organisation that brings together the national Antarctic programmes of various countries to carry safe practices in the Antarctic.

Screening of the new members entering the continent has been in place since February this year. Routine visits and get-togethers with the neighbouring stations, which were very frequent earlier, have been dropped. It feels like we are isolated within the isolation.

It makes sense to take precautions to keep the continent and those living here safe from Covid-19. An outbreak of the pandemic in Antarctica could be disastrous. The austere medical setups mean that it is not always possible to manage all kinds of medical emergencies. In the freezing winter, there are no flights and it becomes almost impossible to evacuate a sick person. The idea that prevention is better than cure perfectly fits the situation here.

The coronavirus crisis puts into question the feasibility of India’s next Antarctica expedition and whether the next team will be able to come and relieve us. The winter team stays on for roughly 16 months, which is quite a long time in these conditions. The remote possibility of spending another winter here if the situation continues to worsen in India is quite difficult to imagine. It is expected that the pandemic will create hurdles in recruiting and training members for the next expedition.

Already, 28 members of our summer team, which spent a couple of months in Antarctica, have been quarantined in a hotel at Cape Town since April 12. They are waiting to fly back to India once the lockdown is lifted.

Speculations about various possibilities are now routine over dinner and stressful for the team. But the entire world is facing uncertain times. Thankfully, if our expedition does get extended for a few months, we have adequate stocks of food and other supplies.

Antarctica plays a central role in determining the earth’s climate. Every year, several projects related to atmospheric, glaciology, and geological sciences are undertaken to unearth the hidden mysteries of the continent.

Before the outbreak of a pandemic, the first-ever International Conference on Antarctic Research to be held on the continent was organised at our station in January. Researchers flew all the way from China’s Zhongshan Station, Russia’s Progress and Australia’s Davis base. It was a huge success as participating nations highlighted their research activities.

It was a major breakthrough for India to take the first step in bringing nations together and playing a prominent role in guiding the future of scientific research in Antarctica. Such a conference could prompt nations to undertake collaborative studies that could eventually lead to the advancement of science.

But the spread of coronavirus will retard the progress of scientific research. Interrupting ongoing projects could hamper vital monitoring of climate change indicators.

The Australian Antarctic Division has announced that no major science projects will be undertaken next season and activities will be limited to automated data collection. India has already called off its scientific expedition to the Arctic region, which was previously scheduled to begin from April.

Funding crunch

There are also uncertainties looming around the scope of the next India Antarctic expedition. With the continuing threat of coronavirus, it will not be possible to approve new projects for the upcoming programme. Besides, as a consequence of global economic slowdown, the Antarctic programmes of many nations could see a dip in operational and research funding. Also, science conferences and workshops related to Antarctica have already been called off as many countries are facing lockdowns. This includes the major Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research conference that was scheduled to begin in Hobart from July 31.

As the world is fighting a brave battle against Covid-19, all the members of the 39th Indian Antarctic Expedition extend their firm support to the frontline warriors. We also salute the public for co-operating in efforts to curb the disaster. Hopefully, we will soon be able to find the cure of the virus and defeat it.

See you all next year.

An iceberg calved from Dalk Glacier floats in Thala Fjord, offshore from Bharati station.

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