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India to head to Antarctic despite covid restrictions

The 40th scientific expedition to the Antarctic will leave from Goa on 6 January to study climate change, sea level rise

Researcher Gautami Samui working in the Antarctic. She has been part of three expeditions to the continent and studies surface snow and glacial melt, among other subjects. (NCPOR Twitter @ncaor_goa)

India's 40th scientific expedition to Antarctica will leave from Goa on Wednesday with 43 members, less than half of the conventional strength of 100, due to covid-19 restrictions, reports PTI.

The team comprises scientists, engineers, doctors and technicians. They will leave Goa's Mormugao Port on Wednesday and head Cape Town in South Africa, a journey of about 18 days. India has two research stations in the Antarctic. Experiments cover everything from biochemistry to investigating ongoing changes in the continent.

Two helicopters will join the expedition at Cape Town, and the ship will sail for the Bharati research station in Antarctica, covering the distance of more than 6,600km in about 16 days. After dropping off some team members, supplies and equipment, the vessel will travel to India's other research station there, Maitri. Travel distance and time will also depend on the condition of the sea ice.

India has been sending an annual expedition to the southernmost continent every year since 1981. Studying the polar regions helps answer crucial questions relating to climate change, sea-level rise and sea ice. Indian scientists also study meteorological patterns to better understand the monsoon.

Members of the 40th Indian scientific expedition to the Antarctic board the ship to Cape Town, the first leg of their journey
Members of the 40th Indian scientific expedition to the Antarctic board the ship to Cape Town, the first leg of their journey (NCPOR Twitter @ncaor_goa)

Apart from the scientific research that is done, the annual mission to the Antarctic is necessary to resupply the two Indian research bases with food, fuel, provisions and other essentials. Last year, covid-19 disrupted schedules. A number of the scientists from the 39th Antarctic expedition were stranded in Cape Town due to the sudden lockdown in India from 25 March 2020, and were finally brought home many weeks later with the help of the external affairs ministry.

The covid-19 pandemic also led to the cancellation India's expedition to the Arctic last year. Scientists usually travel to the Arctic between April and October, according to a report on Mongabay.

This year, a smaller team is heading to the Antarctic. "The expedition leaders are under tremendous pressure to make do with half the team strength, but we place our trust in the team's determination, ability and resilience which has been on display time and again over the years," Javed Beg, group director (Antarctic Operations and Infrastructure) at the National Centre for Polar and Oceanic Research (NCPOR) in Goa told PTI.

India Post has released a special stamp to mark the occasion of the 40th expedition. Dr Yogesh Ray from NCPOR, Atul Suresh Kulkarni from the Indian Institute of Geomagnetism and Ravindra Santosh More from the India Meteorological Department will be leading the team. They will relieve 48 members of the previous expedition who have been working there for the past 15 months.

Medical facilities at the Antarctic station will also be upgraded during this year's expedition, Beg told PTI. Cargo has been sanitised and the team members have all been following isolation rules apart from undergoing testing to prevent spread of the covid-19 virus to the icy continent.

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