Antarctica, a vast, ice-covered land, lies far south of India at the Earth’s southernmost part. This remote continent sits at the globe’s opposite end from India. Reaching Antarctica from India typically involves a journey over the Indian Ocean, crossing the equator, and heading towards the polar region.
The trip from India to Antarctica is long and complex, often taking several days. It usually starts with a flight to a country nearer to Antarctica, like South Africa, Australia, or Argentina, followed by a sea voyage to the continent.
Antarctica is enormous, about 1.3 times the size of India, covering nearly 14 million square kilometres. It’s the Earth’s coldest place, with interior temperatures ranging from -20 °C to -60 °C and milder conditions along the coast. The continent holds 75% of the Earth’s freshwater, mostly in ice form.
Travelling to Antarctica needs special ships for the harsh conditions. It’s mainly for science but also has some tourism, known for its beauty, wildlife, and vast untouched areas.
Maitri-2: India’s Upcoming Antarctic Research Facility
India plans to construct the Maitri-2 Station in Eastern Antarctica by 2029, near the existing Maitri Station, which dates back to 1988. This new facility will host about 90 researchers, significantly enhancing India’s Antarctic research capabilities.
On December 21, 2023, the Earth Sciences Minister announced the station’s expected operational date in 2029. The location for Maitri-II has been chosen, and a preliminary land survey is underway to facilitate road construction for access.
Need for a New Research Station
The current Maitri Station, ageing and outdated, necessitates a new facility. The plan emphasizes adherence to Antarctica’s environmental guidelines and aims to elevate India’s research in the region.
Developing the master plan and appointing consultants will take 18 months. Another 18 months will be dedicated to drafting, tendering, and awarding the construction contract.
The process of material procurement, prefabrication, and transportation from Cape Town, South Africa, or the Indian border to the site will take an additional 18 months. Transporting the final components from the Indian border and constructing the station in Antarctica will require 12 more months. The completion of Maitri-2 is anticipated by 2029.
India’s Antarctic Endeavors
India’s presence in Antarctica, managed by the Indian Antarctic Program, includes three major stations: Dakshin Gangotri, Maitri, and Bharati. Dakshin Gangotri, located 2,500 km from the South Pole, now functions as a supply and transit base after being decommissioned due to ice submersion. Maitri then became India’s second station.
Maitri: India’s Second Antarctic Station
Named by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, Maitri, part of the Indian Antarctic Programme, started in December 1984 under Dr B. B. Bhattacharya’s leadership. The station, completed in 1989, is situated in Schirmacher Oasis, near Russia’s Novolazarevskaya Station. It replaced Dakshin Gangotri, India’s first station, decommissioned in 1990-91.
Maitri can accommodate 25 people in winter, sourcing freshwater from Lake Priyadarshini. It’s well-equipped for various scientific research, including biology and earth sciences.
A blue ice air runway, managed by the Antarctic Logistics Centre International (ALCI), is situated 10 kilometres away, facilitating flights for Maitri and Novolazarevskaya Stations.
Bharati Station: Pioneering Antarctic Research
Bharati Station, India’s third research facility in Antarctica, is one of the two active Indian bases, along with Maitri. It was India’s first dedicated research base and became operational in 2012.
The Electronics Corporation of India Limited (ECIL) and the National Remote Sensing Centre (NRSC) built Bharati Station for ₹230 crore (US$29 million). The facility, spanning 2,162 square meters, was completed in 127 days.
Bharati Station houses ISRO’s Antarctica Ground Station for Earth Observation Satellites (AGEOS). Since the mid-2010s, it has been getting data from Indian satellites and sending it to Hyderabad for processing.
Regarding staffing, Bharati Station supports 47 people during the winter and 73 in the summer. Its primary research focuses on oceanography and studying how continents drift apart. The station is staffed year-round, ensuring continuous research and satellite operations.
The South Pole: Heart of Antarctica
The South Pole stands at Antarctica’s centre, marking the southernmost point on Earth’s axis. The roughly circular shape of Antarctica encircles this geographical heart of the continent.
NCPOR: India’s Polar Research Guardian
The National Centre for Polar and Ocean Research (NCPOR) in Goa oversees Bharati, Himadri (Arctic station), and Maitri. As a signatory of the Antarctic Treaty since 1959, India has also enforced regulations like the Indian Antarctic Bill 2022 to govern its polar activities.
Global Presence in Antarctica’s Research Landscape
Multiple countries have established permanent research bases in Antarctica, which are spread across the continent. These stations are a key part of global scientific efforts in the region.
Most of these research stations are operational throughout the year. As of 2023, 55 out of the 56 countries that signed the Antarctic Treaty run seasonal and year-round stations on the continent.
The number of people working in these stations fluctuates seasonally. Around 4,800 people are involved in scientific activities in summer, while in winter, this number drops to about 1,200.
The United States operates two notable stations: the Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station, the southernmost base, and McMurdo Station, Antarctica’s largest research facility.
The positions of the second southernmost bases vary seasonally. China’s Kunlun Station holds this title in summer, and in winter, it’s the Russian Vostok Station.
Challenges in Antarctic Research
Besides the harsh climate, isolation, and challenging terrain, India faces competition from China’s increasing Antarctic presence. China is constructing its fifth station and has deployed over 450 personnel, marking a significant stride in polar research and exploration. This expanding Chinese influence in Antarctica presents a strategic challenge, emphasizing the importance of India’s continued and enhanced presence through initiatives like the Maitri-2 project.