The continent of Antarctica (the fifth largest continent in the world) covering about 20% of the southern hemisphere is extremely cold, remote and unique in nature because it is completely devoid of any human habitation. However, a total of seven nations including UK, Norway and France claim to have stakes in the continent of Antarctica. The majority of the several islands in Antarctica are claimed by the UK to be a part of their country. The numerous icecaps and glaciers of the completely snow covered frigid continent proves to be a haven for scientists conducting researches in various disciplines like glaciology, biology, ice breakup phenomenon, oceanographic studies and the behavior of the ice caps to name a few. For this reason a number of countries have established permanent research hubs in the continent, mostly constructed on rocks or fixed ice plates unlike the Drifting Ice Stations in the Arctic region. A total of 30 countries including India have permanent research stations (seasonal- summer as well as all around the year) in Antarctica, with research staffs posted all around the year.
The 30 countries currently involved in research in the continent are authorized signatories of the Antarctic Treaty which is mandatory to operate research hubs in the continent. The population of the scientists operating in the various research stations varies from 4000 during summer to a 1000 during the winter in June. In addition to the permanent research bases, close to 30 camps are set up in the continent as specific research support projects during summer.
India is the ninth nation to have multiple permanent research bases in the continent. The Third Indian Expedition to Antarctica resulted in the setting up of the first permanent research base in Antarctica, the DAKSHIN GANGOTRI. Attempts to locate a suitable site for setting up a permanent research station in the continent were implemented during the Second Indian Expedition to Antarctica. The site selection proved to be a highly debatable issue among the members of the expedition. The initial site chosen was discarded after aerial surveys revealed developing fissures on the grounded ice patches. Finally after an exhaustive survey, a 10 kilometer diameter area was chosen for setting up of the proposed research station (coordinates: 70’05’37’’S, 12’00’00’’ E). The research station has been built on a stable ice shelf measuring 150 meters in thickness and free from any crevasses or fissures with the Wohlthat mountain range on the south.
MAITRI, situated on the rocks of a mountainous region called Schirmacher Oasis, is India’s second permanent research base in Antarctica with a capacity for accommodating 25 research personnel in winter. This research base was completed in 1989. The Dakshin Gangotri research base was abandoned shortly after Maitri became operational because Dakshin Gangotri had the misfortune to be completely buried in ice. Maitri is dedicated for conducting researches on diverse disciplines including earth science, glaciology, atmospheric science, communication, medicine, human physiology and cold region engineering.
While Maitri continues its functions, and Dakshin Gangotri has been somewhat resurrected to function as a supply point, India completed the installation of its third permanent research base in Antarctica on March 2013. BHARTI, the third permanent research hub of India, situated beside the Larsemann Hills (coordinates-69’S 76’E) in northeast Antarctica, is technologically most advanced. The three floored research station has been constructed using shipping containers that has been prefabricated in Germany. A total of 134 shipping containers were used, which were interlocked and provided with a double insulation. These containers were then shipped to Antarctica via Antwerp and Cape Town for onsite assembling during the short summer span in late 2011 to 2012. These containers will enable the researchers and scientists to work in safety from the outer extreme climatic conditions which includes 200 miles per hour blasts of bone chilling wind and extremely low temperatures in the region of minus forty degree Celsius. As per the Antarctic Treaty Norms, the entire facility can be dissembled and removed without any trace left on the frigid landscape, at par with the existing international research facilities currently operating in the continent.
The first floor of this 27000 square feet research facility is completely dedicated to research works only consisting of laboratories, storage areas, dedicated technical spaces and workshops, the second floor is the residential quarters (24 single and double rooms) of the scientists and researchers while the third floor caters to the recreational needs and other necessary facilities and houses a kitchen, dining room, library, offices, and gymnasium including a small operation theater complete with a terrace and air conditioning system. The entire facility has been built on stilts while the front façade of the research facility is specially designed with the incorporation of wind tunnels to prevent accumulation of snow drifts. Such elaborate constructions have been implemented because Bharti is aimed to be self sufficient for a long time especially for research work and its remote location.
The Rs 50 crore contracts for setting up of the communications facility of the research hub went to Electronics Corporation of India Limited (ECIL) instead of the National Remote Sensing Center (NRSC). The high speed satellite raw data will be transmitted real time using the two special antennas installed by ECIL, from the Bharti research station to NRSC which will function as a data reception center, data communication center and processing of images and other allied data. The two special 7.5 inch in diameter radome encased antennas (which will make them immune to heavy winds) will have two separate functions. While one antenna will function as a remote sensor, the other will be used for communication. The entire antenna assembly is mounted on a specially constructed steel platform weighing 50 tons. ECIL will also serve as a communication link between the Bharti Station, Maitri, and National Center for Antarctica and Ocean Research (NCAOR). The research of Bharti is dedicated to oceanography and the phenomenon of continental breakup in addition to an exhaustive study in the geological history of the Indian Subcontinent. The Bharti is capable of accommodating 47 researchers (summer) which will fall to 24 in winter.
The Scientific information and data gathered from the three permanent Indian research stations in Antarctica will be of enormous importance in various fields such as meteorology, earth sciences, glaciology, and cold region engineering. It will be further helpful in predicting natural disasters and arresting man made natural disasters. Sharing of scientific information between the various international permanent research facilities (though they are spaced wide apart over the frigid landscape) will further enrich our knowledge for understanding various natural phenomenon.