Chapter - 10: An Open Letter Proposing Indian Antarctica Bases

Chapter - 10

While in Antarctica, I wrote an open letter for the fellow citizens. It pertains to my ambitious dream of launching Indian Antarctic Expeditions and opening some Indian Antarctic stations which has now come true. It was published in the Spokesman weekly-An International Journal published from New Delhi, India in the form of two popular science articles, viz.,
1. First Indian in South Pole Odyssey, The Spokesman weekly, Vol. 27, No. 13-14, pp. 37-38, 1977, and
2. Antarctica-Enigmatic continent Need to open an Indian Base, The Spokesman weekly, 27th Number pp. 93-95, 1978, in addition to many other magazines and dailies.
17th Soviet Antarctic expedition 1971-1973
Sovient Antarctic Merteorological Centre
‘Molodezhnaya’, Antarctica
Dated : 20th May, 1972
To :
The Editor The Times of India
The Indian Express
The Spokesman Weekly
New Delhi, India.
10.1 Introduction
Probably, it will be very interesting for the people of India reading a letter from Antarctica and knowing the Antarctic continent and the various activities going on here these days. Therefore, as a member of the 17th Soviet Antarctic Expedition at the Soviet Antarctic Rocket Station Molodezhnaya (67*40'S 45*51'E) and a lone Indian participant having been privileged as the first and the foremost ever in the history of India to winter over the South Polar Ice Cap in Antarctica, I am pleased to write an open letter for the nation to all the citizens of India about this icy continent, through the esteemed columns of your newspapers and magazines.

I had a good fortune of being provided by the Physical Research Laboratory (PRL) and the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), Ahmedabad, India with a unique and rare opportunity of working in collaboration with the Soviet scientists at the Soviet Antarctic Rocket Station ‘Molodezhnaya’ and to spend the harshest South Polar winter in the natural cryogenic environments of the Antarctic mainland. My special field of interest is the studies of the ‘Upper atmospheric structure and circulation’ by rocket soundings of the terrestrial atmosphere. I have already enjoyed working in the harsh Antarctic environments for more than six months and yet have to have more than a year's more thrilling experiences in the most hostile environments of the world in Antarctica.
10.2 Early Antarctic Exploration
Many of the early Antarctic travellers beginning with James Cook in 1772 combined the keen eye of the scientific observer with the adventurous spirit of the true explorer. Captain Cook did not actually discover the Antarctic, but by sailing right around it and probing with his ships as far South as he could, showed that if an Antarctic land mass existed, most of it lay within the Antarctic circle and was a barren waste of ice and snow. Later, many people inspired by Cook's description of the teeming seal colonies and the prospect of riches from fur and blubber-oil, undertook journeys to the Antarctic under various national flags.
However, the hardships of the Antarctic travel with its continuous struggle against a thoroughly hostile environment together with the lack of suitable instruments for Antarctic research did not leave much room for early scientific observations. The first one and a half centuries of Antarctic exploration, therefore, are distinguished mainly by the discovery of coastlines and mountain ranges, glaciers and snow fields. Later, the love of pure science combined with the urge to explore made this icy continent a scientific laboratory in the 1900s.
10.3 Antarctic Treaty
The period of technological development of transportation and housing in Antarctica lasted from 1928 till about 1961 when the Antarctic Treaty among 12 member nations was ratified. The nations active in Antarctic research which signed this treaty on 1st December 1959 were Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Chile, the French Republic, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, the Union of South Africa, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the United States of America, the Treaty being also open for accession by other countries. After ratification of the agreement by all the signatories, the Antarctic Treaty came into force on 23rd June 1961. It provides for complete freedom of access of scientific expeditions to any part of the Antarctic continent for interchange of the scientific information obtained and for the exchange of scientific personnel.
Under its terms, no military activities of any kind may be carried on in Antarctica and a system of inspection by national observers will ensure that this provision is not evaded. Finally, the question of national claims of the Antarctic territory will be placed in cold storage. Existing claims will be frozen so that no future activities of any country can affect the status quo as it existed at the date of the signing of the Treaty. The aim of the Treaty is to foster goodwill and co-operation amongst the nations working in Antarctica with scientific advancement as their common purpose. The Antarctic Treaty is supposed to remain in force for a minimum period of approximately 34 years.
Thus the Antarctic Treaty declared the land area south of 60* South latitude an international reserve for scientific knowledge acquisition. By that time the technologies needed to live and to move around in Antarctica with reasonable comfort and safety would permit almost any kind of scientific research. Actually, a steep rise of scientific activities in Antarctica occurred as early as the period of the International Geophysical Year (IGY) when several stations were built on the continent by different nations. The South Pole itself became come-at-able as early as 1911, where the Americans later opened the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station in 1956 and wintered over there for the first time in 1957. This station is still continuing.
10.4 Antarctica - A Scientific Laboratory
With the advent of the Antarctic Treaty, the continent developed into a Research Laboratory of the first order. Antarctica, with an area of approximately 5,402,000 square miles, is an ideal continent for science. It is a place where nature goes to its extremes and where unusual environments can be studied as nowhere else on the earth. The lowest temperature, the strongest winds, and the deepest ice occur in Antarctica. Ninety percent of all the ice, on earth, with an average thickness of more than 6,000 feet lies in the Antarctic continent. Its climate is the coldest and the harshest in the world.
At the coast the approximate mean annual temperature is -20*C; 450 miles inland it is -35*C and 900 miles inland it is -50*C. The lowest recorded temperature for Antarctica is about -90*C at the Soviet Union's ‘Vostok’ station, where I am planning to work for some time during this Antarctic Expedition. The Antarctic cold is aggravated by constant strong winds which in many coastal areas blow with unbelievable violence. For instance in ‘Molodezhnaya’ just now (at the time of this writing) the wind speed is 40 metres per second, and in my room I am feeling as one feels at the time of the take-off while on board an aircraft. The outdoor temperature at this moment is below -25*C with almost no visibility due to stormy weather which is very frequent here.
The seas surrounding the Antarctic continent freeze during the winter months for hundreds of miles off-shore. In summer this ice breaks up to form pack ice which, under the action of prevailing winds and tides, is constantly changing in size, form and distribution. It constitutes a hazard to shipping and a barrier which makes access to the coast extremely difficult.
10.5 Antarctic Flora and Fauna
The Antarctic Mainland nurtures no trees, shelters no native mammals other than an occasional seal and supports only a few species of birds. Around the coast, however, marine animals and birds, such as weddel seals, penguins (flightless birds) and snow petrels, come ashore in large numbers to breed. To the present knowledge, Antarctica has never had any native human population. It did have, though, a rich plant life, and probably also an animal life many millions of years ago.
The fossilized trunk and stump of a huge tree were found only a few hundred miles from the South Pole. Vegetable life on the continent is confined to the most primitive types of mosses, lickens and algae. Small insects, mites, nematodes and protozoa live in the dry valley areas of Antarctica but they persist under conditions which are unique in many respects. For almost six months each year, the sun does not set, but the ensuing night lasts just as long in the interior of the continent. In the station Molodezhnaya, these days we are having about 22 hours night and 2 hours day and from the mid June, long polar winter night with the extremely low temperatures will start.
10.6 Antarctic Night Glow - Aurora Australis
The field lines of the earth's magnetic field are quite unusual in Antarctica. They have a very steep angle and even become vertical at one point. Above this region, no Van Allen belts are encountered, slow protons and very soft cosmic rays from extraterrestrial space enter the atmosphere through this magnetic funnel. The aurora australis activity is very common in the Antarctic, for instance at Molodezhnaya itself I observe the aurora australia almost every week when, however, the sky is clear.
The visible aurora is confined to the upper atmosphere above the mesopause, its general but associated effects such as electron and ion enhancements extend well down into the mesosphere. There is evidence that the auroral emissions are produced by atomic and molecular reactions which are activated by bombardment of environmental gases by high speed charged particles which are guided into the particular auroral zone location by the earth's magnetic field with an intensity of approximately 0.5 gauss, oriented generally along meridian lines, with a nearly horizontal direction in the equatorial regions and becoming nearly vertical at high latitudes in the polar regions.
These incoming particles, principally protons and electrons, appear to have a solar source and glow during the nights in a great variety of geometric forms ranging from faint diffuse glows high up in the ionosphere to clearly defined arcs, rays and bands which sometimes extend down the D-region to mesospheric levels. The polar night shadow of the earth will preclude production of electrons by solar radiation to altitudes well up into the ionosphere and thus leave the polar winter mesosphere effectively free of electrons. This has a marked effect on radio propagation in that the entire electron content of the polar winter ionosphere is diminished, becoming less than that concentration required to refract the higher-frequency radio waves.
This phenomenon gives rise to the polar cap blackout of communication systems. I must mention that the auroral activity is our only natural true friend, since it enhances the electron population of the lower ionosphere in the long darkness of the Antarctic winter (in general polar regions) and provides a more favourable environment for conduct of long-range communications using low frequencies and thus keeps us in touch with the world. Auroral activity is one of the most fascinating subjects which one can study in the Antarctic continent.
10.7 Antarctic Atmosphere
The winter polar atmospheric structure represents a weak point in the stability of the upper atmosphere. Here turbulent motions in the troposphere are minimal, and no pronounced tropopause is apparent. Little or no solar energy is available for stratospheric heating so that relatively small deviations away from an isothermal vertical temperature distribution are to be expected.
This particular subject is a part of my Ph.D. thesis and I am, therefore, studying it thoroughly by meteorological rocket soundings of the terrestrial atmosphere with the rockets being fired twice a week on every Wednesday and Saturday from May to August and once a week on every Wednesday during the other months every year.
10.8 Multidisciplinary Research in Antarctica
It is not surprising that Antarctica has attracted scientists of many interests, for example, physicists and geologists, glaciologists and petrologists, meteorologists and biologists and even psychologists, who want to investigate the most enigmatic of all research subjects under the unusual Antarctic conditions - man himself.
Research projects in Antarctica fall into two distant categories according to the objectives; first, the survey-type measurements, such as recording of cosmic rays, aurora, ionospheric activity, magnetic fields, winds, temperatures, glacier movements, whistler signals, etc., and second the exploration-type studies, which include geological observations, paleontological searches and biological studies, etc.
Survey-type observations are generally carried out by young scientists who fabricated and tested their equipment at home in close co-operation with their senior colleagues. In Antarctica, their main objective is to operate the instruments and to record the data.
Exploration-type observations are carried out by younger associates. Geologists, paleontologists and biologists spend as much of their time as possible in the field in direct personal association with the object of their research, the success of which depends upon the ability of the scientist to reach his area of interest, to look for the right objects, to recognize important specimens, facts and relations to draw conclusions while exploring, and continuously to adjust, modify and develop his research programme as his exploration proceeds and his knowledge increases.
For the scientists of both these categories, Antarctica represents an open frontier with vast opportunities to acquire new scientific knowledge. Perhaps even more important, it offers the opportunity to create new scientists trained in scientific research work under unusual circumstances.
10.9 Antarctic Expeditions Selection Criteria
The development of Antarctica into a continent for science was a great and challenging experiment in itself. The basic problem was how to provide a group of scientists in a remote Antarctic outpost with the necessary support which would permit them to live and to work under extremely hostile conditions which are certainly the most extreme and the most unforgiving to be found on the earth. However, this problem has now been solved by the advancements of modern technology.
But the Antarctic still presents a harsh and demanding environment that can at any time demand from an individual the utmost in physical stamina and mature judgment so that he may act quickly and positively in order to survive. This requires men in excellent physical condition, well trained and with a stable, mature personality.
They must also have the ability to adapt psychologically to a strange, adverse environment and to be congenial with others in a small group if they are to pull their share of the load, not only in their specific job area or scientific endeavour but in the general maintenance and operation of the station also. For these reasons personnel for deployment to the Antarctic have to undergo a thorough physiological, psychiatric and psychological screening lasting for about a week per individual beforehand.
Very interestingly, I did not have to undergo any of these tests and was 0chosen for the Antarctic assignment of more than one and a half years on a voluntary basis as no other person from India was ready to take this great risk of going to Antarctica being afraid of losing life there in the extremely cold, harsh and hard conditions. I must mention that it is a common belief that the people of India cannot adapt themselves to the extreme climate of Antarctica but this belief is being shaken this year by my wintering over here.
In an interview by Radio Moscow broadcast on 21st February, Captain Karlov of the diesel-electric ship ‘Navarin’ had remarked, “On my own behalf, I would add that he is really very well prepared for wintering on the Antarctic Mainland. Now he is dressing very lightly and while walking on the deck wears only the open-shoes (Indian chappals) and does not wear the special Antarctic-warm clothing.......” Why did I do so? Because I just wanted to tell those who doubted that for the Indians the cold of the Antarctic is nothing and they can very easily adapt themselves to the extreme climates such as the heat of the tropics and the cold of the poles.
10.10 Antarctic Radio and Television Interviews
In a Radio and Television Interview broadcast by Radio Moscow and telecast by their T.V. Service in June, I was put a question “Being an inhabitant of hot and sunny India, you have spent all this time amongst our Arctic and Antarctic seamen and the icebergs of Antarctica. During this period did you not feel too cold in such icy surroundings ?”
I answered, “Calling India as only hot and sunny would not be very true because it is a country of boundless skies and endless diversity, lofty mountains and peaceful valleys, big rivers and tilled fields stretching far beyond the horizon. India is very colourful and has a highly diversified climate where a season changes over almost every three months. For example, the hot and sunny summer with monsoon rains is followed by a beautiful autumn, a chilly winter and a lovely spring. I doubt very much if the Arctic and Antarctic seamen are really cold. In fact, they should be warm because they are warm-hearted due to which I never felt any cold while living among them.”
“I knew it beforehand that the icebergs of Antarctica would be very cold but the thanks are due to my parents Sardar Mohinder Singh Sehra (father) and Shrimati Satwinder Kaur (mother), who induced into me a deep love for scientific adventures and made me fearless owing to which I will always enjoy participating in adventurous expeditions, howsoever difficult they may be. The cold of the Antarctic icebergs did not bother me at all because I was already used to live in equally low temperatures at my native place in Punjab, India”.
“I remember that in my childhood by seeing the frozen water of my village-ponds, I often used to dream of running and playing on the frozen seas. Among the icebergs of Antarctica, I am very happy since my age-old dream is being fulfilled here. Again, I gave this answer confirming the adaptability of every Indian to the Antarctic cold.”
I must say that here “I always enjoy the very strong winds and the very low temperatures irrespective of the frequent frost-bites. Sometimes, I do feel that I not only like the Antarctic cryogenic environments but also love Antarctica. However, I once escaped meeting a tragedy when I fell deep into a snow-covered crevasse on 14th March due to my ignorance of such cracks, and was pulled out of the death-pit at the moment when I was hardly an inch away from my end but I tempted fate and survived in good health and high spirits”.
10.11 Antarctic Research Stations
In Antarctica, human life mostly depends upon the technological reliabilities of a stove and a radio transmitter. If both failed, death would be imminent unless safety measures had been carefully prepared. One of the main dangers is that of fire. All buildings in Antarctica, even temporary shelters, are amply equipped with fire-warning systems, fire extinguishers and quick exists. Mobility in Antarctica at the present time is achieved most conveniently with helicopters, special sledge-equipped aircrafts and with a variety of surface vehicles, from the big ones down to small motor-driven one-man vehicles or even by a team of dogs.
The Soviet Union has installed six permanent stations and one seasonal station in Antarctica almost surrounding the whole of the icy continent. These stations are (1) Molodezhnaya, (2) Mirny, (3) Vostok, (4) Leningradskaya, (5) Bellingshausen, (6) Novolazarevskaya, and (7) Amery on the Amery ice shelf which is only a seasonal station and operates during the short summer. The station Vostok lies in the Pole of the Cold and is located exactly on the Geomagnetic South Pole. This year the diesel-electric ship ‘Ob’ by which I sailed to Antarctica and also circumnavigated the Antarctic continent has found out the site for a new Soviet station Ruskaya on the shore of the Amundsen sea.
The Americans also have about six stations, viz., (1) Amundsen Scott south Pole Station, (2) McMurdo station which is the biggest in the Antarctic, (3) Hallet station, (4) Byrd station, (5) Palmer station, (6) Plateau station which is now closed. Hallet is a joint US-New Zealand station.
Japan has one station, viz., Showa. Australia is maintaining four stations, viz., (1) Macquarie Island, (2) Mawson, (3) Davis, and (4) Wilkes. France has one station in the Antarctic, viz., Dumont D'Urville which is located near the South Pole.
New Zealand has two stations, (1) Scott Base, (2) Hallet station which is common with the US. Argentina has two stations, (1) Sobral, (2) General Belgrand. United Kingdom has Hallet Bay Base and other stations. South Africa has got one station, viz., Sanae. Chile also has installed some stations on the shore of the Bellingshausen sea in Antarctica. This is only a partial list and is given as an example only.
Obviously, the USSR has the largest number of Antarctic stations than any other single nation. All the Soviet Antarctic stations are coastal except ‘Vostok’ which is the highest and the coldest station in the continent. My station where I have to work is Molodezhnaya which is the biggest Soviet station having the Meteorological Rocket Launching facilities and is the continental headquarters for the Soviet Antarctic Expeditions. It is directly connected with Moscow by telephone.
10.12 Soviet Antarctic Station Molodezhnaya
Molodezhnaya lies in East Antarctica with its coordinates as 67* 40*S, 45* 51*E.. It was initially occupied in 1962-63, but the construction activities are still a major part of the Soviet programme here. The station campus at present consists of some 30 permanent buildings of various sizes, from single rooms to a 320 square metres diesel-electric generation plant and asserted materials including wood, prefabricated concrete and aluminum panel over iron frames. There are also about 10 petroleum and gasoline storage tanks with a capacity of about 8000 cubic metres within the station complex.
The main station is located on the crests of a series of east-west trending ridges of exposed bed-rocks which are separated by ice-filled valleys. Ridge crest elevations vary from about 20 to 100 metres above sea level in the station area and rise to more than 200 metres along the coast. Some of the ridges terminate in cliffs at the adjacent bay, Alasheyev Bight. The major bedrocks are magnetized, granitized and pegmatized Precumbrian gneisses of the crystalline basement of the Antarctic platform.
Exposed rock and soil areas are abundant in a narrow (1-8 km) zone parallel to the coast but are rare inland. Morainic materials in the station area are restricted to erratic and frost-churned mixed materials but active moraines are present in association with the two nearby outlet glaciers. There are about half a dozen of fresh water lakes, in the station area itself, along with numerous small meltwater basins.
Fresh water is obtainable from the two nearby sizable lakes in the summer and fall and also from the snowdrifts in winter and spring. Some of the fresh water lakes near the sea receive minor seasonal pollution by man, the south polar skua and the Adelie penguin but the lakes and basins inland and at higher elevations remain relatively uncontaminated. Macrofauna is relatively scarce within the immediate station area.
There are frequent visits by scavenging South Polar skuas, visits by smaller birds (petrels), a summer population of Adelie penguins - mainly immature and breeding birds and a highly variable and transient population of weddell seals and emperor penguins. Two small Adelie rookeries are readily accessible from the station area. Concentrations of whelping seals are present at the calving front of the Hays Glacier. These are the more obvious opportunities for a biologist of creative thinking. I must mention that there are biological research possibilities awaiting exploitation in the coastal region of Enderby land. Microbiology and entomology may be the most interesting and productive fields of study.

The rocket station ‘SRZA’ is on the top of the highest ridge located at about 200 metres above the mean sea level which was established for meteorological soundings of the upper atmosphere in 1968-1969. Meteorological Rocket ‘M-100’ is fired every Wednesday throughout the year with additional firings on Saturdays from May through August. Several rockets have been fired so far from this station since its establishment. The study of the rocketsonde data is one of my main objectives.
10.13 Life at the Soviet Antarctic Station Molodezhnaya
All the living quarters including one big combined dining-cum-playing room are at an average elevation of about 25 metres above the sea level. Whatever the weather may be, one must go to his working place. When the weather is extremely bad with very strong winds, we sometimes do have to crawl also in order to reach the work place and to survive in good health. Our living-quarters are on the foot of the highest ridge which we have to climb up twice and climb down twice everyday in order to accomplish our rocket sounding work, and in the bad weathers this climbing is often replaced by crawling.
The food is below average with three meals everyday, viz., (1) Breakfast, 0800 - 0900 hours, (2) Lunch (the Russians, however, call it dinner), 1300-1400 hours, (3) Dinner (Supper), 1900-2000 hours. For changing these timings to Indian Standard Time (IST), one would have to add to them two and a half hours because here we are observing the Moscow timings. Thus we take our breakfast when it is almost the lunch time in India. For the last two months, we are living without sugar because of its getting exhausted and now the ship ‘Ob’, which is extremely late for its return, would supply us the same. About 30 members from the 16th Soviet Antarctic Expedition would be sailing back to their home places by the ship ‘Ob’ and we would be about 120 members wintering over here .
When I left India, I was weighing only 65 kg but now in the Antarctic my weight is probably more than 90 kg. One would, perhaps, wonder over these figures and may start thinking that Antarctica is a very healthy place. I must add that all the Antarcticists have to live on stale food, about one year old, preserved in the natural refrigerators. No wonder, the additional is not my own real weight. A science student is likely to attribute this difference to the acceleration due to gravity which has latitude and height dependence, but this alone cannot explain a difference of nearly 25 kg.
Then what is that which has added into my weight ? Obviously, it must be the weight of the special warm-clothing. Undoubtedly, the Antarctic special dress is sufficiently warm but it is equally heavy and weighs more than 25 kg. However, this heavy dress has proved to be of utmost use to me, otherwise the strong winds of Antarctica would have certainly carried me to India in some form or the other by now !
One may ask - Do the Antarcticists take bath ? Yes, they do take it. For instance, at our station ‘Molodezhnaya’ itself, there are special provisions for taking bath once every week. The Russians have a special bath-house and they call it Baniya (Sauna). For the first time when I visited it, I was struck to see them taking bath with their most natural, God-given clothes on. I could not help closing down my eyes and came out after hurriedly finishing my bath as they were taking bath all naked !
The Russian Baniya is a special bath house where the temperature is kept very high up to about 40*C. In the Baniya they have a still warmer room where the temperature is that of the steam. In this special very hot room they take a steam bath and have a still strange custom of beating their bodies by sticks which is really very interesting to see and one cannot help laughing.
I would remark that anyone born and grown up in the Indian culture and civilization would hesitate visiting the Russian Baniya because of the self-evident reasons but I have to go there for taking bath since there are no private shower-baths here, and it is difficult to have them in Antarctica on the economy grounds. But still I am keeping up all the Indian traditions in the Antarctic, as well. In the Baniya when the Russians ask me to put on only the God given natural clothing, I refuse to copy them, and I take my bath with my underwears on.
In Molodezhnaya, an aerodrome is under construction and the Soviets have a programme to start the wheeled-aircraft flights from this place. At present they have only small sledged aircrafts with their wheels having been replaced by sledges.
The scientists are responsible for their own house-keeping and, of course, for their scientific projects. However, everyone by turn has to help with such routine chores as the station-upkeep and the kitchen-services. Only yesterday myself and a German from GDR were on duty in the kitchen for catering the canteen services which every member irrespective of the status and nationality has to do. I really enjoyed doing this work as well.
After the dinner, every week there is a movie mostly in Russian. Still I do face some language difficulty, although, I study the Russian language as and when I get some time. The Soviets have also brought two Hindi movies dubbed into Russian which are, 1. New Delhi, and 2. Prem Ke Liye (For love). Really it would be very interesting to watch them.
10.14 Proposal for Launching Indian Antarctic Expeditions and Establishing some Indian Research Bases in Antarctica
Now, I turn to the most important section of my letter, in fact, the very purpose of this letter. By seeing the other nations hoisting their flags in the icy continent, I have started dreaming of hoisting our ‘Tiranga’ in the Antarctic. Our ‘Tiranga’ is really very great because it shares the scorching heat of the equator. What a splendid day it would be when it lands on the South Polar Ice Cap in Antarctica and starts sharing the severe cold of the Antarctic as well.
We have already won several wars. Now, let us join together and wage a war to fight against the extremely harsh polar winter night, the frosts and the snowstorms of the Antarctic continent. For most of the time we have been under some foreign power or the other but now we are independent. This year, on the 15th of August when we are celebrating our Independence Day let us come forward and start new programmes with new hopes on this auspicious occasion.
10.15 Planning of Antarctic Research Programme of India ( ARP1)
An Antarctic Research Programme of India (ARPI) may be one of the most useful programmes and projects which we may think of undertaking in the near future. Such a big scientific programme, obviously, cannot be run without the Government's approval because the scientific harvest which ‘ARPI’ would yield, needs thousands of Rupees for its yearly expenditures which only the Government can finance. Such a programme may be funded by the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) or some sort of new Government Body which may be an Indian Interstate Council of Circumpolar Explorations and Expeditions ‘ICE’. For administrative purposes the ‘ICE’ may be attached to the Department of External Affairs of the Government of India.
One may question as to what is, after all the need of ‘ARPI’? Well, the prime product of ‘ARPI’ would be the scientific knowledge, something not easily measured in Rupees and paise benefits that accrue to each tax-payer every year. Scientific knowledge frequently can be valued in hard money or as improved living or for contribution to health but this process takes a time which often is longer than the memory of the average citizen. In view of this fact, my argument for the opening of strong research programmes in Antarctica, should be based very simply and directly on the assertion that the acquisition of scientific knowledge is one of the very basic fibres in the make up of a healthy, strong and progressive society. It ranks on an equal status with such other basic fibres as modern technology, a high living standard, advanced medical capabilities, an efficient government system and a satisfactory national defence system. Even during times of rising living costs and dwindling resources, a nation which wishes to maintain prominence among other nations cannot afford to let its support of science shrink.
In the quest for financing the ‘ARPI’, I feel that we need the strong and sincere co-operation of men who share the belief that the acquisition of scientific knowledge is of intrinsic value to our society but who are sufficiently detached from personal involvement in this research programme to avoid the impression of being parochial. For the Antarctic exploration, the scientific efforts can succeed only when adequately supported by a complex and costly line of logistics. The potential value of the research would be very high but cannot be counted in Rupees and paise at the end of each fiscal year. The profits would be limited to scientific knowledge but will extend far into the areas of technology, organisation, programme planning and management, and finally, a most valuable product of ‘ARPI’ would be a group of men motivated by the spirit of exploration and experienced in the handling of the large and complex projects involving science, industry and government.
The most significant contributions that ‘ARPI’ will make to our basic scientific knowledge in the next several years will very likely concern the genesis of the earth and the evolution and adaptation of life. The Antarctic continent has probably gone through more drastic changes than the rest of the earth, furthermore, some of the evidences of early stages of development, both geological and biological, may be better preserved and less contaminated in Antarctica than at other places on our globe. The recent find of a jawbone of an ancient amphibian, a Labyrinthodont, which also lived in Africa and India, appears to give powerful support to the hypothesis of the old Gondwanaland and the subsequent drift of its fragments to the places where we find Asia, Africa, Australia and Antarctica today.
10.16 Scientific Fields of Study of ARP1
The Antarctic Research Programme of India (ARPI) would include almost all the major fields of scientific endeavour; among them may be geology, aeronomy, physics of the upper atmosphere, aerology, biology, medicine, glaciology, geodesy, oceanography, astronomy, geophysics, seismology, paleontology, petrology, meteorology and psychology and many other related subjects. Geological work may aim at developing our knowledge of the geological structure of the Antarctic continent and the history of its formation. At the same time, mineral investigations may lead to the discovery of ore deposits.
ARPI glaciologists may find it interesting to investigate the ‘balance sheet’ of the accumulation of snow on the continent against the wastage due to the evaporation, melting and blowing away of snow and the ‘calving’ of icebergs at the coast. At present, it is not clear whether the great bulk of the continental ice sheet is diminishing or increasing.
Measurements of its thickness by seismic sounding show that there are roughly five million cubic miles of ice in Antarctica. So, even small changes on its thickness will have marked effects on the weather and the oceans. Meteorologists would add to our general knowledge of the circulation of the atmosphere in the temperate and frigid zones of the southern hemisphere which may in turn go to increase the efficiency of weather forecasting.
ARPI geophysicists may contribute towards the mapping of the sub-glacial rock surface of Antarctica. Although, this has the general form of a continent, much of the Antarctic rock is now known to be below sea level and its vast areas probably take the form of islands supporting huge thickness of superimposed ice. Seismograph at the future Indian Antarctic Stations may provide records of both local and distant earthquakes. Travel times of the several phases of the disturbances are directly related to the structure and physical state of the interior of the earth. These records may contribute towards a better understanding of the large scale geological features of Antarctica for testing new ideas concerning the earth's interior.
The biological work of ARPI may be pointed at the ecology of seals and penguins which populate the Antarctic coastlines. Knowledge of the feeding, mating and breeding habits of these animals and their dependence on the environment may be obtained. Other work may concern with the physiology of the animals and also of man when he lives in this frigid environment. A lot of work may be done, especially in the study of teeming plankton and fish life of the southern seas which support these larger species.
Under the ARPI, measurements of the earth's magnetic field over long periods in the Antarctic at the future Indian Antarctic Stations (IAS) and at many points around the coast may contribute towards a better understanding of the changes taking place in the structure of the fluid interior of the earth. Gravity measurements at many points along the coast may provide further information on the shape and the internal structure of the earth.
As I have already mentioned, studies of the earth's magnetism have much wider significance in that the upper reaches of the earth's atmosphere provide one of the most spectacular and beautiful effects - the polar aurora. The aurora australis is seen on most nights in the Antarctic. The earth's magnetic field lines from polar regions reach far out into space, where they trap and hold electrically charged ions and electrons (the so-called ‘Van Allen Radiation’ recently discovered with the aid of satellites and rockets). The geomagnetic field forms a huge ‘magnetic bottle’. Leakage of charged particles from this ‘bottle’ which are associated with disturbances on the sun, produce the aurora. Associated electric currents, perhaps produced by the action of wind, on the auroral ionisation, cause complex changes in the structure of the ionosphere and fluctuations in the magnetic field recorded at the ground.
10.17 Indian Antarctic Stations (IAS) of ARPI as Future Scientific Research Bases in Antarctica
At the future Indian Antarctic Stations ‘IAS’, the ‘ARPI’ physicists may photograph the distribution of auroras over the sky and measure their intensity and special characteristics while recording the changing distribution of electron density in the upper atmosphere. These latter measurements would have an immediate use for determining appropriate wavelengths and times for worldwide radio communications which involve the reflection of the radio waves from the under-side of the ionosphere. Future communications via satellites will only be possible if we have a much better understanding of higher regions of the upper atmosphere. The polar aurora, occurring between 50 and 500 miles above the earth, facilitates the study of these regions.
Studies of these phenomena may also throw some light on the problems of harnessing controlled nuclear fusion to produce useful energy. Present efforts to contain fusion reactions depend on ‘magnetic bottles’. New ideas on the causes of leaks in these ‘bottles’ gained from geophysical studies, may help to overcome the major difficulties.
Measurements of the variations of intensity of the cosmic radiation at the future ‘Indian Antarctic Stations – IAS’ by the future ‘Indian Antarctic Scientists – IAS’ would provide further information about interplanetary space and the complex processes by which the disturbances are propagated from the sun to the earth's upper atmosphere. The Antarctic observations would be of great value because they indicate the variations in the low energy particles which are prevented from reaching low latitudes by the earth's magnetic field.
10.18 Indian Interstate Council of Circumpolar Expeditions and Explorations (ICE)
If some new Organisation such as ‘Indian Interstate Council of Circumpolar Expeditions and Exploration – ICE’ is actually born and launches the biggest scientific endeavour - the ‘Antarctic Research Programme of India – ARPI’, there is no doubt that the enthusiasm of the future ‘Indian Antarctic Scientists – IAS’ at the future ‘Indian Antarctic Stations-IAS’ would stem from their opportunities for understanding things, for formulating new concepts and creating new theories because in Antarctica there is wide scope for this in many branches of science. The technological progress upon which man's future will be based depends upon a better understanding of the fundamental problems with which the future ‘Indian Antarctic Scientists – IAS’ would ever more struggle.
How little we would know about the polar regions of the earth if we had only photographed them from high flying airplanes and if instrumented capsules, dropped by parachute, had provided the only data on surface features, rock information, fossils, plants and animals.
For the ‘ARPI’, the ‘ICE’ would organise scientific expeditions to the Antarctic icy continent and would open some bases on the mainland with a view to gathering valuable scientific data about the South Polar Ice Cap. It goes without saying that such a big scientific endeavour cannot become a success without a strong logistic support by the Services - Indian Army, Indian Air Force and the Indian Navy.
Indian Navy, probably, would have to play the most important role in the logistics. So far the Indian Naval Forces are engaged mainly in the waters of the tropical regions or more correctly it has shown its admirable activities in the liquid waters. Now let it (Indian Navy) step ahead and wage a war in the solid-waters (frozen seas) of Antarctica in order to give a logistic support to the ARPI and to add to the technology of sailing among the icebergs and in the pack-ice and to learn more and more about the requirements for ice navigation which would as well make our Defence Services even more strong.
10.19 Mobile Scientific Research Vessels
The very first task before us is to have the special ships which should be capable of penetrating the Antarctic pack-ice. To achieve this goal we need special ships, for example, Ice-breakers rather atomic Ice-breakers which we must make by ourselves or to begin with we may buy one from some other nation. I do not know exactly whether we already have such ships. To my mind, even an ordinary ship with a strong base can reach the Antarctic coast without much difficulty in December-January-February which is a short summer of Antarctica. It hardly matters if we do not have the Ice-breakers and we need not buy them also. To begin with we can rely upon our ships which we already have with us and start our Antarctic expeditions. And later on, our vessels would, by themselves, speak what additional do they need for sailing to the Antarctic waters and we may, therefore, gradually improve upon them.
We would not be satisfied with our scientific observations in the Antarctic only, we would do still more. We should have mobile scientific research laboratories. It would, therefore, be desirable for the ‘ICE’ to have at least two scientific motor vessels amply equipped with each and every scientific component for the scientific investigations in the oceans and above the oceans marine atmosphere and upper atmosphere and the like. For instance, during the annual relief voyages organised by the ‘ICE’ for the ‘ARPI’ personnel at the ‘IAS’, these scientific motor vessels may have specific cruises in the oceans surrounding the Antarctic continent, viz., the Indian Ocean, South Pacific Ocean and South Atlantic Ocean, for studying the oceanography, marine biology, space physics and many other subjects.
I think that the scanning of the Indian Ocean, in particular, by carrying out meteorological observations on a regular basis may improve the weather forecasting in India. Thus these scientific motor vessels besides carrying on the Indian Antarctic Expeditions (IAE) would also accomplish the future Indian Ocean Expeditions(IOE). To a common mind all this may sound to be too idealistic to be put into practice. However, it must be added that this all is not only desirable but is a necessity too.
In the logistics, the Indian Navy may be assigned the responsibility of taking up scientific cruises along with the other related tasks while the Indian Army personnel may build the suitable houses in the Antarctic together with the other ground support and the Indian Air Force may take up the aviation job in the icy continent for which the special sledge equipped aircrafts and helicopters would be needed.
10.20 Automated and Manned Antarctic Stations of ARPI
To begin with, for the ARPI, the ICE may open only one coastal station and later it may step ahead and build up some Research Bases in the inland ice of Antarctica. Afterwards, with the advancements in the modern technology related to ARPI, in the icy continent, the ICE may open automated stations because it would be quite reasonable to leave to such automated stations many of the routine observations in the Antarctic such as temperature, snowfall, weather, aurora, cosmic rays, ionosphere activity, whistler signals, micropulsations, seismic waves and the like. Unmanned stations on the Polar Ice Cap would be far cheaper to establish and maintain than permanently manned stations. Manned stations and human sensors would be reserved for those research objectives that need the presence of a human mind to be really successful such as biological studies, fossil search and a number of geological observations.
Thus, it appear quite conceivable that the survey-type research work would be taken over more and more by the automated stations requiring semi-annual or annual visits and a number of small portable field stations which can be airlifted easily in modular units from one place to another after the accomplishment of a specific research objective may be maintained. The cost to build an automatic station and maintain it on a year round basis in Antarctica may be approximated to be about one-tenth of the cost of an equivalent manned station.
The Indian scientific Institutes and the Laboratories may start right now, building up the automatic scientific instruments for the survey-type recordings in the Antarctic by the automated stations for the polar research. It should be quite obvious that the exploration-type research such as geological observations, paleontological searches and biological studies, cannot be automated, it definitely needs the live scientist as the most important factor in the project. Automated stations would keep direct radio contact with their home bases in India with the help of satellites such as the Applied Technology Satellites, etc.
10.21 Electric Power Supply to Antarctic Stations of ARPI
Surprisingly, the most expensive single component of an Antarctic station turns out to be the electrical power supply. Isotope-heated, thermo-electric supplies would appear very appropriate. In the specific case of an isotope-heated power source, an isotope with a shorter lifetime could be used for earthbound power supplies. Semi-annual or even the annual replacement would be satisfactory for the Antarctic use or probably, the simplest method one may think of for bringing down the high cost of electrical power in the Antarctic is to build up wind-driven generators. In the Antarctic coastal regions, the winds are very strong and one can easily put this natural wind energy into useful energy.
At our Antarctic stations, to begin with, we would have both the diesel-electric and the wind-driven generators interconnected to each other such that when the wind speed is low and is unable to give the desired power, the diesel-electric power plant would automatically start working, and when the wind is enough to operate the wind-driven generators, the diesel-electric power plant by itself would get disconnected. Such an arrangement should be quite feasible in the beginning, and later with the technological development we may start the isotope-heated power plants for our Antarctic Research Bases. If our Government undertakes such a big scientific endeavour and opens both the ARPI and the ICE, I think it would be like a dream come true for every citizen.
10.22 Realization of ICE, ARPI and IAS
Till now, the word ‘IAS’ used to stand only for the Indian Administrative Services. Let us add a bit more and by the opening of the ARPI and the ICE, the word IAS would become an abbreviation for several other terms, for instance, it would stand for - (i) Indian Antarctic Services, (ii) Indian Antarctic Stations, (iii) Indian Automated Stations, and (iv) Indian Antarctic Scientists. I am waiting for the day when ‘IAS’ becomes a multiform and puts one of its fragments in the Antarctic cold for the scientists to strive for new scientific knowledge in the face of the harshest conditions of our earth's environment.
How the three words - (i) ICE, (ii) ARPI, and (iii) IAS can be realised? Obviously, they would be born if and only if the Government of India encourages them and takes the responsibility of maintaining their costly logistic-line by financing them; the very approximate money figures may be given as 10 million Rupees both for the scientific projects and the logistic supports, towards the yearly expenditures. Obviously, this approximate figure of about 10 million Rupees (one crore) per year is not too high as compared to the scientific harvest which the ICE, ARPI and IAS would yield. This would be one of the biggest tasks which our Government can do for us which would remain immortal in the history of India for ever. This would as well go to add into our national status and prestige among the other nations.
On the 15th of August falls the history making anniversary of our Independence Day. Let us on this auspicious occasion join together and start collecting funds to make ICE, ARPI and IAS a success by giving financial support to our Government and emphasise upon the need of such a scientific endeavour. The people are now landing on the moon. Let us, to begin with, land on the Antarctic which is definitely as close to the lunar conditions as we can get here on the earth and later visit the moon as well.
10.23 ICE Fund for Establishing Indian Antarctic Research Bases
Let us open some ICE fund to initiate the ARPI and contribute generously to it. The individual State Governments may take up this job and the collection for the ICE fund may be made on a state-wise-basis. If every dedicated and hardy citizen of India contributes a single Rupee to this ICE fund, the collections are expected to rise to more than 500 million Rupees which may be sufficient to open at least one base, having a capacity of some 25 personnel in the Antarctic, and later we may expand this programme. It would be easy if the Sate Governments running the lottery-systems charge some additional amount (may be 10 paise per ticket) for the ICE fund and as soon as the ICE fund rises sufficiently, the same may be handed over to the Central Government to lay down the foundations of ICE, ARPI and IAS. The collections may be continued till they become enough to open the future Indian Antarctic Stations.
The ICE fund may be opened and looked after by the individual State Governments till the collections get saturated. This procedure would probably be easy and convenient to follow. The State Governments may make a call to the people, on the auspicious occasion of the rejoicing celebrations of the magnificent anniversary of our Independence Day, to contribute generously to the ICE fund. I feel, it is not the dream of myself alone but is the dream of every citizen to see India in Antarctica by landing our national flag ‘Tiranga’ on the South Polar Ice-Cap. To make this dream real, everyone ought to donate the maximum one can afford, to the ICE fund, the responsibility of which may later be taken over by the Central Government so as to open the future Indian Antarctic Research Bases.
To start with, I personally contribute one thousand and one Rupees (Rs. 1001/-) to the ICE fund from my own salary and the amount will be given to the Government after my return from Antarctica. I do feel that this amount is too small for such a big scientific endeavour and equals a single drop in an ocean but this is probably what I can afford at present. I hope that the dedicated and the hardy citizens of India will multiply this small contribution by a million and raise the ICE fund to hundreds of millions of Rupees with their generous donations for the noble cause of Indian scientific research in Antarctica.
10.24 Site for Future Indian Antarctic Station
I have shown an approximate location of the future Antarctic Base of India in the enclosed map. This position of the future Indian Antarctic Station is, however, provisional and is subject to the proper site to be found by the first Indian Antarctic Expedition as and when the ICE, ARPI and IAS are born which altogether depends upon the approval by our Government and, of course, on the generous donations by all the citizens to the ICE fund and in turn upon the allegiance of the people of India.
Beginning with the next year, I would be going to the Soviet Union's Vostok Station which lies inland at the Pole of Cold in Antarctica. In January-February there are regular flights between ‘Mirny’ station and the ‘Vostok’ station and also the sledge-driven tractors go there carrying the heavy loads which the small aircrafts cannot carry. I may be staying at Vostok station for a few months to gather some scientific data from Vostok, the Geomagnetic South Pole. After finishing my specific work from there (Vostok station), I am intending to return by sledge-driven tractor train which takes about 30-40 days from ‘Vostok’ to ‘Mirny’ and vice versa. I may also go to Vostok station from Mirny by tractor-driven sledge train in Antarctica depending upon the circumstances at that time
It must be added that the tractor-rides in the Antarctic are full of utmost danger because of the hidden ice and snow cracks (crevasses) but still why do I wish to have a tractor ride of two months from ‘Vostok’ to ‘Mirny’ or from ‘Mirny’ to ‘vostok’ whichever possible? Because I want to see the maximum portion of the Antarctic continent and this tractor-ride of nearly two months scanning more than 1500 km may be quite advantageous for our future Antarctic Bases for which the survey of the interior of the continent may prove to be quite fruitful. The people here are waiting for their home-trips but, surprisingly, I am waiting for this thrilling 1500 km sledging trip into the interior of the icy continent. Unfortunately, I do not have any movie camera, otherwise I would have made a vivid picture of Antarctica for the people to see the life on the South Polar Ice-Cap themselves. Anyway, let us wait for some more time to have the adventurous excursions to our own Indian Antarctic Bases.
10.25 Emergency at the Soviet Antarctic Station Molodezhnaya
In my letter, I mentioned about the thirty people leaving for their home places but now the situation has changed because the Soviet Ice-breaker ship ‘Ob’ has not been able to penetrate into the ice and reach our station Molodezhnaya and, therefore, these 30 people from the previous Expedition are likely to winter over again. Till now no connection could be made between the station and the ship ‘Ob’. The helicopters which the station had have already been sent back to Leningard for replacement and the sledged aircrafts could find no suitable place near the ship for landing with the result that the ship has now started receding from the station ‘Molodezhnaya’ with a view to finding out some suitable flat-ice where the aircrafts may land and a connection may be set up but this appears to be rather very difficult as per the present worst situation.
Our station is already exhausted of some important food-provisions, for instance, bread making stuff, potatoes, sugar, milk, fruits, etc., and, therefore, we would now have to live without all of them. Just imagine tea without sugar and milk for an Indian and the ice of Antarctica. Is it not too strange? The ice of Antarctica, I have liked very much but, somehow, could not appreciate the taste of sugarless black tea and coffee. The ship ‘Ob’ was expected to provide us with all such provisions but at present, probably, it will not be possible to bring them from the ship to the station. However, we have been told that an aircraft may fly upto the ship to give her the mail by air dropping the same which would depend mainly upon good weather and, therefore, sending of the mail as such may also not be possible but still we may take a chance.
Due to the shortage of time and strict emergency, I could not prepare many interesting pictures which I had photographed earlier to send the same to you. However, a couple of photographs showing the life in Antarctica are being enclosed herewith. I hope that this letter, if mailed, would be enough to speak to the people, through your kind offices, all that I wanted to say at present. I do not know how far I am correct in writing this open letter because many people may take this ‘Proposal’ only as an imaginary dream and nothing more than that but I am sure that if they wish they can change it into reality also by actually opening some Indian Research Bases in Antarctica.
10.26 Request for Sending this Open Letter to the Prime Minister of India as Proposal for Opening Some Indian Scientific Research Bases in Antarctica
I would request that while publishing this article, you may personally emphasize on the strong need of opening some Indian Antarctic Bases with a plea to the people to contribute generously to the ICE fund. I am not sure if the individual State Governments can actually take up the task of making collections for the ICE fund till the Government of India itself initiates the ARPI and approves such a scientific Project.
For accelerating this programme, you have the most important task of winning the public opinion through your esteemed newspapers and magazines. I am enclosing herewith a few maps of the Antarctic continent. I would request you to send the copies of this proposal ‘Opening of the Indian Antarctic Bases’ with strong recommendations from your own side along with a copy of the enclosed maps to all the concerned personnel as per your own kind judgment, the Scientific Adviser to the Prime Minister of India may be one of them.
Really, how nice it would be if our Government accepts, in principle, the proposal of laying down the foundations of the Antarctic Research Programme of India (ARPI), Indian Interstate Council of Circumpolar Explorations and Expeditions (ICE), and the Indian Antarctic Stations (IAS) on the auspicious occasion of our Independence Day on 15th August.
The challenge of working in reasonable comfort in the most isolated regions of the earth would then be combined with the opportunity to take part in a functioning experiment in national co-operation, more correctly international co-operation, the results should, undoubtedly, be professionally and personally gratifying.
Jai Hind !
Yours faithfully
(Parmjit Singh Sehra)
“First Indian even to winter over the South Pole

and circumnavigate and explore the
Antarctic continent.”
10.27 Dream Come True
It is worth mentioning here that my above proposal of opening some Indian Research Bases in Antarctica was finally accepted by the Government of India as a very important document of national importance. Our country, accordingly, sent first Indian Antarctic Expedition using a Norwegian ice-breaker ship during the short Antarctic summer in january 1982, thereby opening the first Indian Antarctic station “Dakshin Gangotri” and subsequently, yet another Indian Antarctic station “Maitri” there, which were initially operated during the summer time only but were later on transformed into wintering stations in Antarctica.
The Indian Antarctic Expeditions are now sent to Antarctica on a regular basis since 1982, and it is rally a ‘Dream Come True’ for me, although I have not yet been given any national award for this purpose. However, I do hope that the Government of India will certainly fulfill its promise of giving me a suitable national recognition for my historical Antarctic achievements as committed by it in the Parliament.

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