- India’s scientific contribution in Antarctica is crucial for advancing knowledge on existing research on climate and geological history in the region, as well as its linkages with the Indian subcontinent.
- Climate change is affecting the most vulnerable populations across the globe, disproportionately. India ranks 7th in the Global Climate Risk Index 2021.
- India has the largest and the fastest-growing youth population in the world, and it is time for young people to have a more defined role in global dialogues on climate solutions, decision-making, advocacy, education, and action to lead our societies toward a climate-resilient future, writes the author of this commentary.
- The views in this commentary are that of the author.
It’s impossible to deny that Antarctica sure leaves a lasting impression on your soul. Never would I have thought that I would be in Antarctica, the largest wilderness on Earth — a land unknown for centuries to humankind — at the end of the world.
In March 2022, Robert Swan O.B.E., the first person to walk to both the North and South poles, along with his son, Barney Swan, led the 2041 ClimateForce expedition to Antarctica, to gather first-hand knowledge and drive solutions to address climate change. The objective of the mission was also to inspire meaningful action to preserve Antarctica and the planet as a whole. Robert Swan is also UN Goodwill Ambassador for Youth and has dedicated his life to developing leadership across the globe to encourage climate action, sustainable practices, and the use of renewable energies. There were more than 150 participants on this expedition, that included CEOs, researchers, students, educators, artists, activists, and changemakers from more than 35 countries — all of whom had come together for a cause. And I was a part of this dedicated team.
Scientific cooperation alongside environment protection
Antarctica has the driest, windiest, coldest, and the most hostile environment — a place untouched by war and highly regarded for scientific research and cooperation. Humans only began exploring Antarctica extensively on land during the 20th century. In the decades since the development of technology, research has led to increased access to the region, along with the gradual establishment of scientific stations, with a few territorial claims to the continent.
However, Antarctica’s enormous, fragile and pristine environment is protected by the Antarctic Treaty. The treaty was initially signed in Washington on December 1, 1959, by 12 countries and later came into force in 1961. As of now, the total number of Parties to the Treaty is 54, committing themselves to the protection of the continent — “a natural reserve, devoted to peace and science.” Following the treaty, on October 4, 1991, the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty was signed in Madrid and later entered into force in the year 1998. Otherwise known as the Madrid Protocol 1991, it further bans the mining and drilling for petroleum in the area south of 60°S latitude. Together with the treaty, it forms part of the Antarctic Treaty System, promoting scientific cooperation as well as protection of the Antarctic environment and wildlife, preservation and management of historic sites, sustainable tourism, large-scale information exchange, and related interests.
The treaty’s protocols are set for renewal in the year 2048. Antarctica as of now, is fully protected. But in the next 25 years, this could change. All the commitments can be ignored, and Antarctica’s natural resources treasure and scientific opportunities may all be exploited. The polar war in the Arctic has already begun and Antarctica could become the next geopolitical hotspot. The Ross sea is one of the most likely sites for hydrocarbons in the Southern Ocean with an estimated 300-500 billion tonnes of natural gas and at least 135 billion tonnes of oil.
The unsettling realities
Antarctica contains approximately 90 percent of Earth’s ice and roughly 70 percent of the planet’s freshwater. The most visible effects of climate change have been observed in Antarctica. The continent is an important part of Earth’s climate puzzle and an early warning signal for the rest of the planet.
The expedition acquainted me with a sobering view of how rapidly the climate is changing in the region and how vulnerable it is to the slightest change. We never expected to find rain in Antarctica when we arrived, but we did. “I have been coming to Antarctica for the last 30 years and I have never experienced rain for hours here,” said Robert.
Worldwide, news publications made headlines about the “Antarctica heatwave” that was unlike any ever observed. In March, the temperature of -12 degrees Celsius, which is 40 degrees C higher than the seasonal average was recorded at Concordia station in Antarctia and popular news outlets reported about it. Just as we embarked on our ship in Ushuaia, the news of the Conger ice shelf collapse started to make rounds.
In the same month, March 2022, after 107 years, Ernest Shackleton’s ship ‘the Endurance’, was discovered at the bottom of the Weddell Sea amid unexpectedly favourable conditions of the lowest extent of Antarctic sea-ice ever recorded during the satellite era since the 1970s. This was made possible when in February, the Antarctic sea ice extent reached a record low at 830,000 square miles — 29.6 percent below average. An accelerated impact of these changes on the distribution and biomass of krill, an essential component of the Antarctic region’s food chain, in turn, is threatening the existence of all wildlife in Antarctica, some of which are already at risk of extinction.
India’s presence in Antarctica
India first marked its first presence in Antarctica in 1971. Dr.Parmjit Singh Sehra reached the continent as part of a joint Indo-Russian expedition facilitated by the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) and the Hydrometeorological Centre of Russia to study the upper atmosphere. For India to make a permanent mark in the region, however, it took another decade.
India is one of the elite nations with multiple research stations in Antarctica. The Indian Antarctic Programme (IAP) is governed by the National Centre for Antarctic and Ocean Research (NCAOR), an autonomous organisation of the Ministry of Earth Sciences, Government of India, leading major scientific research spanning from biological sciences to glaciological, meteorological, and oceanographic research among other areas. Other institutions under the Ministry of Environment, Forest, and Climate Change, such as the Wildlife Institute of India, Zoological Survey of India, and Botanical Survey of India have also been part of the Indian Scientific Expedition to Antarctica (ISEA). After marking its first expedition to Antarctica in 1981, India has made a compelling presence in the harshest and the coldest continent and it has to its credit, about 40 scientific expeditions since.
In 1983, India signed the Antarctic Treaty and established its first research base, Dakshin Gangotri, 2,500 kilometres far from the South Pole. As of today, the research stations Maitri (1988) and Bharati (2012) are fully operational. In its 41st scientific expedition to Antarctica, the country intends to explore two main research areas; first, the geological history of the Indian subcontinent by determining linkages between India and Antarctica; and second, conducting reconnaissance surveys and preparatory work for drilling of 500 meters of ice core to understand Antarctic climate, westerly winds, sea-ice and greenhouse gases from a single climate archive for past 10,000 years. The joint study on the ice core drilling will be done in collaboration with the British Antarctic Survey and the Norwegian Polar Institute.
In 2017, a special issue of the journal Proceedings of the Indian National Science Academy, the first of its kind, was published to shed light on India’s scientific contribution in Antarctica. The myriad of research this special issue constitutes spans from sea ice and glacier monitoring, lake sediment studies, faunal diversity, bacterial biodiversity, geomagnetism, aerosol studies, to Southern Ocean biology in the region.
Regardless, Indian participation in scientific research in Antarctica is important to further expand the existing knowledge in various thrust areas such as climate change, crustal evolution, electric and magnetic flux measurements, environmental monitoring, and observational research to the benefit of humanity.
India’s vulnerability to climate change
Climate change is impacting the most vulnerable populations, who are least prepared for climate events. India’s socio-economic condition makes the nation one of the most vulnerable countries to climate change, ranking 7th in the Global Climate Risk Index 2021. Particularly at risk are coastal areas, mountainous areas, deserts, and small islands in India, which are susceptible to flooding, tropical cyclones, heatwaves, drought, and other hazards.
Hailing from the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand, I have experienced the implications of changing climate on the lives and livelihoods of my own community, along with the occurrence of various extreme disasters, such as the 2013 Kedarnath flash floods. The Himalayas is warming at a rate higher than the global average. Changing climate has certainly posed a daunting challenge to predominantly rain-fed agricultural livelihoods across the Indian Himalayan region which forms a part of Hindu Kush Himalayas (HKH), otherwise also known as the “Third Pole” (as it forms the largest area of permanent ice cover outside of the North and South Poles).
The rapid melting of glaciers, erratic rainfall patterns, increasing temperatures, and extreme weather events are impacting the lives of local communities as well as the biodiversity of the region, in addition to the increasing number of “ghost villages”. Amongst the most vulnerable groups are women, children, and old people who are left behind in the villages as a result of climate-induced and related socio-economic drivers of outmigration in the region. Moreover, the recent “spring heatwaves” across India in March-April are yet another stark reminder of the dire consequences of the intensified anthropogenic climate change.
The role of youth in climate action
The climate crisis represents massive levels of uncertainty for future generations. Well, we are the future generation, and as a matter of urgency, we have an important role to play to save our planet.
The latest IPCC report may come as an unsettling shock, but it sure is a “wake-up” call for everyone. If we cross the 1.5 degrees Celsius threshold, we are at higher risk and it certainly will be most devastating for vulnerable communities across all continents. This decade will be the tipping point in steering the world towards a net-zero future and preventing its worst effects.
The industrialised countries and their leaders need to understand the rapid transformations needed for cutting emissions across all sectors, as well as the implementation of effective climate change mitigation and adaptation strategies. However, in this regard, the role of youth, as agents of change, in combating the climate crisis is highly crucial too. India has the largest and fastest-growing youth population in the world. Young people should have a more defined role in global dialogues on climate solutions, decision-making, advocacy, education, and action.
Quite possibly, today’s youth will be the last to ensure a liveable world for generations to come. Therefore, more than ever, we ought to ask our leaders for effective climate policies, invest in youth-led solutions, giving young people opportunities for representation in the climate change debate and being receptive of compelling transformation. To end with, for a climate-resilient future, the time has come to fuel youth activism in the country.
The author was part of this year’s 2041 ClimateForce expedition to Antarctica, with Robert Swan, the UN Goodwill Ambassador for Youth.
Banner image: The Indian Contingent at Antarctica as part of the 2041 expedition, earlier this year. Photo by 2041 Foundation.