Gap in sampling hampers India’s ecological monitoring in Antarctica

Adelie penguin near Bharati station. Photo by Anant Pande.

  • India’s polar research is temporarily paused due to the novel coronavirus disease-associated lockdown.
  • Scientists who are yet to reach India are worried over the condition of samples collected from fieldwork in Antarctica while others who are back in their labs have to deal with processing and planning delays.
  • Ecological monitoring in Antarctica contributes significantly to India’s input in global climate change research and a gap in sampling would mean loss of crucial data.

If this summer had gone as planned, Anant Pande would be in his laboratory in the Wildlife Institute of India, in Dehradun, ready to catalogue and analyse samples that he and his colleagues had painstakingly collected in Antarctica over 10,000 km away.

But Pande who works on marine top predator ecology and conservation and studies climate change effects on Antarctic fauna is now in quarantine in Cape Town, South Africa, with 27 of his colleagues who were part of the recently-concluded 39th Indian scientific expedition to Antarctica that began in late 2019. They could not return to India as both India and South Africa initiated their respective lockdowns in late March that coincided with their travel dates.

Waiting to get back home, Anant Pande, project scientist at Wildlife Institute of India (WII), told Mongabay-India from Cape Town, South Africa, that the ongoing crisis will have repercussions on long-term ecological studies that need consistent data collection.

Read more: India’s polar missions hit pause. 

“Antarctica, being at the centre stage of global climate change, has been showing pronounced signals of anthropogenic impacts including temperature rise, increased glacial and sea ice melting and loss of ice cover from coastal Antarctica. These impacts are more evident in the species which are higher up on the trophic level (seabirds and marine mammals), thus necessitating long-term monitoring to perceive changes in their populations as well as on the Antarctic marine ecosystem as a whole,” Pande said.

Collecting samples from snow petrel individuals in east Antarctica. Climate change impacts are more evident in the species which are higher up on the trophic level (seabirds and marine mammals). Photo by Anant Pande.

Pande and his colleague’s research focus in Antarctica is to quantify changes in Antarctic marine ecosystems through ecosystem sentinels such as seabirds, collate information on status and trends of Antarctic wildlife, and to contribute to the Antarctic Biodiversity Database for their conservation and management.

A place of extremes, Antarctica, the ‘white continent’, is the fifth-largest continent in the world. Of the 14 million square km area, 98 percent is covered with thick ice sheets that formed 25 million years ago and holds a major portion of the earth’s freshwater.

India maintains two research stations in Antarctica. Annual financial outlay for the Antarctic programme is about Rs 1.2 billion. India is a signatory to the Antarctic Treaty System and has a strong presence in the continent since 1981. The National Centre for Polar and Ocean Research (NCPOR), India’s premier research institution is responsible for the country’s research activities in the polar (Arctic, Antarctica, Himalayas) and Southern Ocean realms.

Break in data collection impacts India’s research in Antarctica

Observing that Antarctic wildlife monitoring forms one of the few long-term research projects of Indian scientific expeditions to Antarctica and contributes significantly to India’s input in global climate change research, Pande said even a year’s gap in sampling would mean the loss of crucial data with respect to ecological monitoring.

“The present situation is going to be disastrous for research studies that need repetitive and long-term data collection. Already several important meetings, workshops, and conferences on Antarctic science have been either postponed or canceled. This means a lack of opportunities to share results, build collaborations, and interact with other polar scientists. Economic losses due to the novel coronavirus disease-associated lockdown might have a long-term effect on science budgets and as has been reported earlier, on the Indian Antarctic Program,” he said.

Pande fears the lockdown would also impact the transport of Antarctic samples to the laboratories where they need to be analysed. Delay in lab analysis might also degrade the sample and reduce the quality of expected outputs. Students who depend on these samples for their Ph.D. or Master’s projects would be hard hit if the Indian Antarctic Program suffers any setback.

Emperor penguins on ice sheet near India Bay. Antarctic wildlife monitoring forms one of the few long-term research projects of Indian scientific expeditions to Antarctica. Photo by CP Singh.

“Usually we store the samples frozen at -20 degrees Celsius in a container onboard the vessel. These samples are then shipped under the same frozen conditions to India, at labs at WII or NCPOR. This time though the samples are being kept at the harbour (conditions not known) waiting to be shipped because of the lockdown in South Africa and India. We are unsure of how long it will take for the routes to open for the shipment of samples,” Pande elaborated.

“Once we receive the samples at WII, we catalogue them and start the analysis, in our case its mostly molecular analysis.”

Antarctic climate impacts global climate systems

Pande whose tryst with Antarctica began 12 years ago (2008-2009) as a student participant for the 28th Indian Scientific Expedition to Antarctica, said though “we are still in the early phases of a long-term study with repeated sampling of marked areas of wildlife presence, early signatures from the study indicate negative impacts of extreme weather events on seabird survival and melting of sea ice on the distribution of penguins and seals.”

“However, it’s essential to continue this long-term monitoring with a focus on areas of high biological value (e.g. seabird nesting sites, penguin colonies, seal haul-out areas) to accurately decipher the changes happening in the ecosystem,” he added.

Mahesh Badanal, a project scientist at NCPOR’s Indian Antarctic Program (Science), who participated in the recently-concluded 39th expedition to the region was lucky enough to return to India (in January 2020) before the COVID-19 disease lockdown was imposed.

He also shared Pande’s concerns on funding and delay in analyses.

Badanal works on paleolimnology (the study of lakes and lake sediments to reconstruct past climatic and environmental changes) and as part of the India-Japan collaboration Schirmacher Oasis Nippon (Japan) India Coring Expedition or SONIC, Badanal was involved in the extraction of 35 metres of core sediment (collectively) across 10 Antarctic lakes in the Schirmacher Oasis in the 39th expedition.

SONIC coring team with their longest sediment core (8 m) retrieved from Epishelf Lake (E 13). Photo by Kota Katsuki, Shimane University, Japan.

“With availability of state-of-the-art instruments and growing research application in Antarctica using various analytical tools and methods along with the changing climate, we need to focus on long-term research to understand the interplay of Antarctic climate with the global climate systems,” said Badanal.

While he has started preliminary work with the sample sections in his lab at Goa, significant part of the work (core-logging and X-ray based analysis) that was scheduled to be carried out in Kochi Core Centre of Japan in June is now on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I have started preliminary work (such as litho-logging and sub-sampling) on the sections of sediment cores. They were transported in frozen conditions to India from Cape Town through an international courier under controlled temperature conditions. We have requested the necessary funding for radiocarbon dating and that has been approved. And once we receive the funding, samples will be sent to obtain radiocarbon dating from major AMS radiocarbon dating facility. But the major analysis will happen only when we have the required funding and full working capacities,” he said.

Badanal said sediments archived in Antarctic lakes can give us a wealth of information about the past climatic conditions of the region they are located in and the dynamics of evolution of the lake. Unlike the tropical and temperate regions, past climate reconstruction in Antarctica is restricted to ice-cores, marine and lake sediments.

“We retrieve sediment cores from these lakes using a coring device such as a piston corer. Once retrieved, the sediment core is frozen and transported to the mainland for further analysis. In Antarctic lakes, we study these sediments to understand the evolutionary history of the lake, the prevailing climatic conditions, the ice-sheet dynamics (waxing and waning), and the relative sea-level variation,” he said.

Even as the pandemic has forced substantial changes in the polar research programmes of countries, Madhavan Rajeevan, secretary, Ministry of Earth Sciences, said polar research, especially Antarctic research will continue. NCPOR’s director M. Ravichandran said scientists have to rely on satellites and instrument buoys deployed in the polar regions for data, until things go back to normal. Ravichandran is also hopeful that India will draft its policy for the Antarctic this year.

Periglacial Lake in Scirmacher Oasis, Antarctica. Photo by Mahesh Badanal.


Banner image: Adelie penguin near Bharati station. It is essential to continue long-term monitoring with a focus on areas of high biological value (e.g. seabird nesting sites, penguin colonies, seal haul-out areas) to accurately decipher the changes happening in the ecosystem. Photo by Anant Pande.

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