Tourism putting pressure on Antarctic environment

The interplay between the ocean, atmosphere and ice results in climate change.
Dr Thampan Meloth
Dr Thampan Meloth

KOCHI: Though the impact of climate change in Antarctica is not as grave as in the Arctic, the melting of ice is a major cause for concern. Speaking to this newspaper on the sidelines of the 46th Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting (ATCM) in Kochi on Friday, Dr Thampan Meloth, director of the National Centre for Polar and Ocean Research (NCPOR), said the floating ice, called ice shelves, are melting fast due to radiation from above and the warming of water from below. “The ice shelf is interconnected and like a belt. When it starts melting it becomes loose and starts falling down. The impact is unpredictable; a small change can accelerate melting,” said Dr Meloth.

Around 99% of Antarctica is covered with ice. The thickness of the ice is around 4.5 km. Antarctica is one of the driest places on earth. If the Sahara desert receives precipitation of around 100 mm a year, it is less than 15 mm in Antarctica. The ice in the continent has formed over millions of years. If it starts disintegrating, it is not going to be restored in the near future, said Dr Meloth.

Scary reports of sea level rising may be exaggerated. But the melting of ice coupled with thermal expansion caused by the warming of oceans is alarming. Cyclones and rough sea conditions are already resulting in coastal erosion. The rise of the sea by even a few millimetres will have a huge impact on tropical countries, he informed.

When ice melts in the polar regions, its impact will be felt in the tropical areas, islands and low lying areas. The impact will be more in the mid-latitudes and low-latitudes.

Maitri research station
Maitri research station

The interplay between the ocean, atmosphere and ice results in climate change. Ice is white. It reflects 90% of the radiation back to the atmosphere. However, when it melts, it starts absorbing 80% of the radiation. That leads to more expansion of water. This is a chain reaction. It will impact the atmosphere and ultimately the climate of the tropical areas like the Indian monsoon, he said.

Explaining the significance of the ATCM, Dr Meloth said the working group on scientific operations and tourism is trying to bring out a framework to regulate tourism activities in the icy continent. The ACTM aims to foster international collaboration on scientific research and tourism.

A special working group to develop a tourism framework was constituted following a proposal presented at the 45th ACTM in Helsinki in April 2023.

“Increase in tourism activities is putting pressure on the precious and pristine environment of the continent. So it has been decided to develop a clear framework. Antarctica is not like any other place on earth. Since the ship-based and aircraft-based tourism has increased, it has an adverse impact on the environment. This is what India has been talking about for several years. During the Delhi ATCM in 2007 we had suggested regulation of tourism. The discussions will start on Saturday and we will most probably come out with a mechanism or framework for regulated tourism,” said Dr Thampan.

The International Association of Antarctic Tourism operators have clear guidelines. Only environment-friendly activities are allowed. The tourism sector should have a proper waste management system and should not impact the flora and fauna. Indian research stations are out of bounds for tourists. Lot of tourists don’t even touch Antarctica. Their ships pass close to land, he said.

Bharati research station
Bharati research station

Indian research at Antarctica

The NCPOR is coordinating all Indian scientific activities in Antarctica. They are studying the melting of ice, reasons for the phenomenon and the changes in climate. Ice is considered one of the best natural archives where in atmospheric air bubble, temperature and gas are recorded. besides, there are scientists studying micro organisms like psychrophilic bacteria, which are able to survive in extremely cold conditions. Another focus area is the changes in the Antarctic land mass and its stability.

Around 80-90 Indian researchers visit Antarctica during summer every year. Summer in Antarctica starts in November and extends up to March. Most of the scientists return by the end of March. But some stay put at India’s Maitri (25) and Bharati (23) research stations all 365 days of the year. Most of the scientists work during summer because that is the only time there is sunlight and conditions are favourable to go outside.

Life in Antarctica

Life in the Antarctica can be daunting for people who are not mentally strong. Otherwise it is an opportunity to do things one cannot do normally, said Dr Meloth. Antarctica can at times be too cold. Coastal area temperature varies from -5°C to -30°C. In interior Antarctica, the temperature can vary between -50°C to -90°C. Antarctica is nearly 4.5 times the size of the Indian sub continent. It can be very cool, very windy harsh and dry.

“When you land in Antarctica you may feel like you have landed in a surreal place. It is very white and the mind does not work the way it normally does. You may feel things around 100 km away to be very close. But a long stay could make you feel homesick,” says Dr Meloth. He has been to Antarctica six times as part of the Indian expedition. He has also visited to Arctic region a couple of times.

ATCM in Kochi

The 46th ATCM, which started in Kochi on May 20, will conclude on May 30. It is hosted by the NCPOR, an autonomous research institute under the Union Ministry of Earth Sciences. Around 350 delegates from 56 countries are attending the conference. The ACTM aims to foster international collaboration on scientific research and sustainable resource management in Antarctica.

India-Japan-Belgium collaboration

  • In Antarctica, components of the cryosphere and terrestrial and marine ecosystems are significantly impacted by climate change. These changes influence climate impact drivers globally. Japan and India are cooperating in the field of Antarctica on science exploration, Japan’s senior negotiator for global environment at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Tanabe Makoto told TNIE.

  • Paleoecological archives at the interface between the continent and the Southern Ocean, such as lake and coastal marine sediments, provide important information on past changes in the relative sea level, ice sheet dynamics, climate, and their effect on biota in ice-free ecosystems along the Antarctic coastline. This information is critical to assess the extent and pace of natural variability in the cryosphere and Antarctic ecosystems.

  • Successful joint expeditions between nations like India, Japan and Belgium demonstrate the effectiveness of these collaborative efforts for advancing Antarctic research and preserving its scientific legacy, he said.

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