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Vishnu Nandan is the only Indian on the largest ever Arctic expedition
Vishnu Nandan is the only Indian on the largest ever Arctic expedition|By Special Arrangement
Environment

Biggest Arctic Expedition Ever Has An Indian Imprint

Meet 32-year-old Vishnu Nandan, the only Indian scientist who is part of the team that will record climate change data

Naveen Nair

Naveen Nair

It is being called the mother of all Arctic expeditions, the MOSAiC is the largest endeavour ever undertaken in human history to collect continuous data at the North Pole that could ensure a better understanding of the global climate change leading to vigorous mitigation policies.

But what is perhaps more significant is that this year long expedition, under the most trying climatic conditions on Earth, has an Indian presence to it.

32-year-old electronics engineer Vishnu Nandan may not be an official representative from his country but by default he is the only Indian scientist to be present at the expedition.

Nandan who represents four Canadian Universities is traveling this week from his current residence in Calgary in Canada to Tromso in Norway and then will set sail to catch up and board the RV Polarstern, a German ice breaker that will then anchor itself to a floating ice sheet for a year long experiment around the North Pole.

From the tropical backwaters of God’s own country in Kerala to the freezing sub-zero wilderness in the Arctic, Nandan’s journey is a tale of passion, hard work and a dash of luck.

The young scientist who has already been on ice 16 times for expeditions spoke at length with The Lede over phone on what excites him to take yet another one.

“What I am absolutely thrilled about is the enormity of this whole project. When it comes to the logistics, the people whom you are working with, the environmental conditions like complete darkness because of the absence of sun, the threat of polar bears and above all the feeling that you are here to be part of an effort to get very pristine data that could change the way we model our policies towards climate change in coming generations. It simply cannot get bigger than this,’’ Vishnu Nandan told The Lede.

What Is MOSAiC?

What we now know as the MOSAiC is a Multidisciplinary drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate.

It is easily the largest research project ever undertaken in human history to study climate change at a cost of 134 million dollars developed over a decade.

The expedition led by Germany’s Alfred Wegener Institute will take six hundred inter-disciplinary scientists from 17 leading research institutions across 20 nationalities to what experts call as the ‘epicenter of global warming’ or better known as the Arctic Ice Sea.

On September 20th 2019 the German Ice Breaker RV Polarstern had set sail from the Norwegian port of Tromso with the scientists and tons of scientific equipment on board.

The ship is expected to spend another 12 to 14 months or to be precise 390 days drifting along the Arctic Sea recording invaluable data.

“The ship took twenty days to find a suitable piece of floating sea ice in the Arctic after which it has been anchored on to that ice piece. The plan is to drift along with the drifting ice which means the ship goes wherever that particular piece of ice goes. The ship is literally hooked on to the ice. Already equipments for atmospheric, oceanographic, ecosystem, remote sensing and such other measurements have already been deployed on the ice,’’ Nandan told The Lede.

With the MOSAiC having been set up, the RV Polarstern is now slowly drifting towards the North Pole. The year long expedition itself is divided into six legs so that man power as well as the fuel needed for such a huge project can be replenished from time to time.

“See nobody can stay and work on the ship for a year under such extreme climatic conditions. The ship also needs to be refueled every two months or so. Even the supplies need to be replenished. Otherwise the expedition will be a disaster. So you can understand the effort that goes into it,’’ Nandan added.

While Nandan was speaking to us from Calgary, the first leg of the expedition had already begun. On December 20, a new set of scientists will come onboard to replace the existing tired scientists. Nandan would be one of them.

Nandan was busy packing his bags at Calgary when The Lede caught up with him. His initial transit point would be at the Tromso port where he would board a Russian Icebreaker that would intercept the RV Polarstern wherever it is at that time, but only after a gap of 20 days of sailing through 3500 nautical miles of icy waters.

“This is the boring part of the whole journey where you will have nothing much to do till you get to the RV Polarstern. Also remember there is no sunlight over the whole stretch. From the moment I go onboard the Russian Ice breaker to the moment I get back in the middle of February I am not going to get even a glimpse of the sun,’’ says Nandan as he chuckles over the phone.

The same Russian ship that would carry Nandan will bring back the first batch of scientists to Tromso after dumping a lot of fuel and food supplies to the Polarstern.

While data collection from a number of experiments over ice would happen on board the RV Polarstern, a command centre has also been set up in Germany that would have the capacity to store 15 terrabytes or in other words a whopping 15,000 gigabytes of data which would finds its way to publication over a period of two years from 2021.

The ship will deploy a network of observational sites upon the sea ice which will be part of the naturally drifting ice across the polar cap. It will have a number of autonomous and remotely operated sensors to collect invaluable data as the system drifts further towards the North Pole.

The ship would also have an ice camp very close to it that will have large scale research facilities which will be the central observatory. There would also be two German research aircrafts Polar 5 and Polar 6 that would complement the functions of the MOSAiC at the site. Special landing strips have been built on the ice for the same purpose, a testimony to the scale of the expedition and what is at stake.

Nandan has a word of caution too. “All depends on where the ice goes. Let us say if there is a snow storm or a blizzard and it breaks up the ice. That is the degree of uncertainty which raises the stakes in these kinds of expeditions. Not to forget the polar bears that one might encounter while working on the ice,’’ added Nandan.

The MOSAiC has also deployed specialised people as ‘polar bear watchers’ to ensure the scientists’ safety.

What Is MOSAiC Going To Bring Back?

If the experiment itself is a gigantic step towards making the planet a safer place for the future generations by enabling robust Arctic climatic projections, which is a key mission of the expedition, what makes it even more significant is the fact that the data that RV Polarstern collects will be free for consumption for the entire scientific community post the year 2021.

“What we will be looking at is a rich data set for the next generation of researchers. This data will become the reference point for almost all future research in generations to come. That is what the RV Polarstern hopes to bring back with it,’’ adds Nandan.

MOSAiC’s lead researchers claim that over the years there has always been a lacuna in understanding of the climatic process at the Arctic Circle due to lack of proper observation itself in the central Arctic during winter and spring.

The reason for this has been simple. The ice at the Arctic has been so thick that it has kept out the best of the ice breakers and the researchers from the heart of the Arctic climate system at least during half of the year. It is this uncharted domain that the MOSAiC hopes to investigate by drifting a complete year round.

“We all know the impact the change of weather patterns in the Arctic can cause on the rest of the world including India. But till now we have never had a continuous temporal data set that can help us decipher this in a much robust manner. The idea is to collect continuous set of data for a full span of one year throughout a line that is representative of the entire Arctic Ocean,’’ added Nandan.

The Polarstern has already started its journey along the same Arctic line as mentioned by Nandan and is already collecting invaluable data. Nandan’s job aboard the Polarstern will be limited to radar and remote sensing which is his expertise.

He represents four Universities in Canada – Victoria, Waterloo, Calgary and Manitoba and Nandan’s task being the deployment of ground radar sensors over ice and collect data using them.

“It is very difficult to measure the thickness of sea ice because its salt and radar waves don’t go well together unlike in fresh water. Hence it is more challenging. So my job will be to deploy these sensors on ice and collect continuous measurements of radar signatures for the months I am there. After I leave someone else will take over the task,’’ Nandan told The Lede.

Nandan says that every scientist aboard the Polastern would also have a secondary task which would be to help any other scientist in need, in the true spirit of a collaborative effort.

“The absolute crucial part will be to use these number or these values to improve climate models which will ultimately lead us to have a better understanding to forecast climate conditions across the globe,’’ Nandan added.

From Kerala To The Arctic Circle

“I was the first person in my batch to resign from my job at the Tata Consultancy Services in Bangalore. I was never the normal office going chap,’’ Nandan recollects how he left a cushy job for the more challenging world of research.

Born and brought up in Thiruvananthapuram, Nandan says he was the average student throughout, never exceptional in his academics during school or college days.

An alumnus of the Sree Chitra Thirunal College of Engineering in the capital city from where he completed his bachelors in Electronic Engineering, Nandan now remembers the tough days of bagging a campus placement with a hearty laugh.

Nandan’s life however took a turn for the better when he got into a Masters programme at the prestigious Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) in Earth Observation Science.

From then on remote sensing and use of satellites to collect data had become a passion for Nandan. But still ice was beyond his reach.

Even before he completed his masters, Nandan bagged a scholarship from The Netherlands at the United Nations supported International Training Centre under the University of Twente.

“My first project was never on snow or ice. Rather I was monitoring the mangroves in the Sundarbans using remote satellite technology. Finding the heights of trees and the impact of erosion on them was my research area till I got an offer to work for the Alfred Wegener Institute in 2011. It is here that I finally jumped into ice for the first time,’’ he recollects.

Nandan recollects his first job on ice which was on the Antarctic Ice Shelves. Later the same fellowship took him to the ice sheets in Greenland and the Siberian permafrost and then propelled him to a PhD at the University of Calgary.

Currently Nandan is on to his second post doctoral at the University of Manitoba after completing his PhD when the Alfred Wegener Institute picked him up to be part of the MOSAiC expedition team representing four Canadian Universities.

Apart from the data that he would help the MOSAiC gather, Nandan hopes to bring back a strong message to India and especially his state in Kerala. Spreading awareness about climate change and the need to be responsible enough to protect it is on top of his agenda. But Nandan says he is keen to take it beyond that.

“After I return my aim is not to talk a lot about science but to show a lot of pictures and videos about darkness in the Arctic and tell people in Kerala or wherever in India that life is not all about engineering and medicine and that if you burn just a piece of paper the residue doesn’t settle in the ground, it flies away and at some point of time it falls on a surface of snow or ice and it absorbs greater energy from the sun and melts faster,’’ Nandan sums up the mood.