Interview conducted by Advaith Jaikumar and Rujan Sarkar
On the 1st of December in 1959, nations of the world came together to sign the Antarctic Treaty to recognise Antarctica as a preserve for peace and scientific study. The treaty also set aside 10% of the Earth forever for peace. A vast number of scientific achievements and advances, including in wildlife, conservation, and climate science, owe their foundation to this treaty.
Collecting samples from snow petrel individuals in east Antarctica
Dr. Anant Pande is the Programme Head for Marine Megafauna at WCS-India. While many of us may have the travel bug that has taken us to many places, not many of us might know what the planet’s coldest continent on the south pole is like! On the anniversary of the Antarctic Treaty, we would like to bring some insights from Dr. Pande, who has worked extensively in India’s expeditions to Antarctica on seabirds as well as marine species such as krill! Read more and dive right into his fascinating work and the exciting backdrop that it is set in!
When and how did you first find yourself in India’s scientific expeditions to Antarctica?
In 2008, when I was a postgraduate student at the University of Mumbai, I saw a newspaper advertisement about an opening for students to be a part of the Indian Antarctic Programme’s expedition. I was required to submit a short-term project proposal to qualify for the opportunity. I had no confidence in my proposal being shortlisted. However, a few days passed, and I remember an email popped up one day asking me to come down to Goa to the National Centre for Polar and Ocean Research (NCPOR) to present my proposal to a panel of experts. This was overwhelming, since I had never presented my work or ideas to experts. I mustered up the courage, prepared a presentation and finally completed this. I was made aware that only one student would be selected, making me even more anxious about being accepted.
By the time the results were announced, I had begun working as a Project Assistant at the National Institute of Oceanography. A few months into this new position, the news that I was selected for the expedition came around! At this moment, I was in a dilemma, wondering whether I should leave a full-time job to go down to Antarctica for a few months. However, along the way, I realised that this was a unique and once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and it was clear what I wanted to do.
Please tell us a little about your first expedition and your work.
Ocean acidification, or the increased levels of Carbon dioxide in the ocean, is one of the biggest problems many species face. I wanted to understand how Antarctic krills are reacting to this. My work then was related to my proposal to study Antarctic krill, which are abundant there. I planned to fish for these krill, maintain them in aquariums and understand how their metabolism changed when subject to changes in the aquarium’s conditions. I recall that when I pitched this proposal, nobody seemed optimistic about me being able to catch krills, but I was still hopeful. This hope gave me a memorable experience! Unfortunately, krill fishing nets are costly. So I went around Mumbai along with a friend of mine, and we put together a DIY-handmade net! We bought hooks with carabiners and fishing ropes; we even went down to a steel forgery for the ring that goes around the net.
What do you remember about your first journey to Antarctica?
The more I speak about it, I realise that working in Antarctica does not feel like reality; it feels like I’m narrating a fictional story to you. When heading to a forest for fieldwork, you can plan out in advance, but in Antarctica, you have to prepare for everything, owing to the weather.
When it came to my work with krill, there were a few challenging aspects that made my project stand apart from the rest. Most scientists have a rather fun ride on the way since the bulk of their research begins once they reach the continent; however, since my project required me to fish for krills, I already had work cut out for me on the journey. One thing you must know about krill - they migrate vertically, which means that by day they are submerged underwater, but by night they move upwards towards land. This meant that I had to do my sampling at night. Adding to this challenge, the ship cruises at around 14 knots, so I would have to ask the ship’s captain to slow down every time I wanted to begin sampling. The entire ship’s crew and the captain were from Russia, and I remember having to convince them every day to slow down so that I could try to catch krill.
Although I was unsuccessful on my first few nights, it finally came along one day. I still remember that day clearly; it was just before reaching Antarctica. The weather was harsh and very windy, and the ship's deck was rattling. One of my friends was carrying a Chinese torch with him. I covered the torch with a cling wrap, tied it and lowered it with the net. Creatures like krill gather around light. This idea worked like a charm! That night, I finally caught around 400 of them. I remember everyone was overjoyed as this arduous task finally came to an end! So my entry into Antarctica was not really very fun-filled; it involved work and effort.
What did you feel when you finally got there?
So, we hit the continent at midnight, and the sun was bright since we were at the pole. There was ice all around. The sea was frozen, too, but broken into sheets called ‘pack ice’. You do come across icebergs on the way, but when you suddenly reach the coast, you see that everything is frozen, and it’s just a unique feeling. Your watch shows that it’s the middle of the night, but you’re wearing protective sunglasses, and the sun is shining bright. Everything around you is strikingly white. The coastline is covered in ice, and the sea is frozen, too! From the coast, it was again a two-day-long, slow journey of navigating through the ice to reach the threshold of the ship’s voyage as it could no longer break through the ice. From here, we reached our destination by air on helicopters!
What was your PhD research in Antarctica about, and how has it helped you with the larger scope of your work?
After my first project on krill in Antarctica, I wanted to return for my PhD, but I didn’t have the resources for it. So, we submitted a proposal, which was accepted and received some seed funding. I had initially thought of doing my research on seals, and I was really excited by the prospect. I had big plans for photographic monitoring of seals and conducting helicopter transects. However, their breeding season began in October, and we would only get there by December, so it wasn’t feasible. Then I found out about a bird called the snow petrel, which exclusively breeds in Antarctica, and surprisingly, there was little previous research on their breeding habits. This sparked my curiosity, and I changed my topic from seals to snow petrels. With the help of a collaborator, I developed a cost-efficient way to monitor the birds using webcams and motion sensors and was able to conduct my research on their breeding biology and genetics.
Snow Petrel chick color-tagged for long-term monitoring
When I returned to India, I realised that my time in Antarctica helped me with a stronger sense of building future collaborations. You see, working in a place like Antarctica really teaches you about cooperation because everyone is there for a purpose and the challenging conditions often require help from other people that may not even have anything to do with your field! So I needed to cooperate with other members of my expedition and even people from different countries because that’s just what you need to do to get your work done. As for my work with seabirds, I learnt that Indian seabirds had largely been ignored, and so I helped found the Indian Seabird Group on my return to consolidate seabird research as well as promote collaboration and opportunities for seabird work in India.
Antarctica sees a large number of migratory species. What brings them there?
Antarctica is a land mass surrounded by the ocean. During winters, the waters around Antarctica freeze, trapping a large number of nutrients within the ice. When summer comes, the ice starts to melt, releasing all the captured nutrients. This causes a sudden bloom in productivity. Phytoplanktons make use of these nutrients and increase in numbers. They become food for zooplankton, such as krill, whose population grows exponentially. This brings in large mammals such as whales, some of which, such as the blue whale, feed exclusively on krill. These krill are present in such high numbers that their combined biomass is estimated to be more than that of humans. They are known as the keystone species of the Southern Ocean because most large species rely on them as a food source. If you remove them from the oceans, the entire ecosystem will collapse. This bloom of life is why so many species of birds, fish, and mammals migrate great distances to come to Antarctica.
Can you walk us through a day in Antarctica during your work?
Adelie penguin building a pebble-lined nest
The polar regions are under significant threat from climate change. In your experience, how has Antarctica changed since your first visit?
Climate change and how it influences snow petrels was one of the aspects of my PhD work in Antarctica. But climate change is a long-term phenomenon, and you can’t say anything conclusive after only 3-4 years of research. You need long-term monitoring programs, which is something we have been working on over the years. But as a personal observation, on my last expedition, we experienced very high variations in temperature one day. It went up to 14 degrees Celsius, and everyone was walking around in t-shirts. That is something I experienced for the first time in my five visits to Antarctica.
Apart from that, and this is all anecdotal information rather than based on scientific data, I also witnessed that several ice rivers that flowed into the ocean had become free-flowing streams because of melting. I also found, strangely, that the number of breeding pairs of seabirds was less, and this is something I wish to publish as well. But it is hard to say what is happening in the whole continent, which is larger than Australia, just by my observations of one area. However, if we don’t make the changes that climate conferences are recommending, there are predictions that within the next 100-200 years, there will be proper colonies and settlements in Antarctica, and there will be nowhere else left to go.
Surveying ice-free areas for seabird nesting sites often included covering large areas on-foot in sub-zero conditions
What do you think the future of Antarctica and its wildlife looks like?
We will see many new species colonising the area due to warming conditions, especially smaller species such as invertebrates. Larger species, such as birds and mammals, may also start moving south towards Antarctica. There are bound to be changes to the trophic structure of the Southern Ocean. The birds I was studying require land to breed, and with more melting, there will be more available land, which may mean an increase in their breeding population. But we cannot be sure because climate change also increases extreme weather events, which can be limiting factors for these animals. It is a complex scenario, and we cannot be sure what will happen. But we know that some species will benefit while others will not. Endemic species will be at high risk, whereas migratory species could increase their range and colonise previously inhospitable areas.