Earth sciences how far is India ?

By GovernanceToday
In Cover Story
November 3, 2014


The earth is a unique and singular planet of our solar system,on which life is known to exist. Our understanding of the Earth, since its inception about 4.5 billion years ago, has come through centuries of observations, wisdom and experiences of our ancestors which further evolved and got sharpened by the modern scientific exploration, hypotheses and models generated to explain the intricacies and complexities inherent in the various processes operating upon it. The key ‘spheres’ that sustain the planet Earth – atmosphere, biosphere, hydrosphere,  cryosphere and geosphere are required to be knit into a large and single ‘Sphere’ as each individual smaller sphere is intimately linked, inter-dependent and interwoven with other spheres. Collectively, these help in driving the earth System. the earth system science organization, under the ministry of earth sciences, Government of India, established in 2007 endeavours to address these themes and the science behind the  processes that drive the Earth, in a holistic way. The scientific programs on understanding climate change processes, dynamics of ice covered regions of – Arctic, Antarctic and Himalaya and its impact on the climate as well as its linkages to Indian monsoon, weather forecasts, early warning to natural disasters-storms, tsunamis, earthquakes; dissemination of information on ocean state, advisory to fisher men, exploration and exploitation of living and non living marine resources and technology development especially in the field of ocean exploration; are some of the major initiatives that have direct relevance to mankind with high rating on the societal benefit scale.

Science and Initiatives
One such initiative that has proved highly beneficial and even life saving was the development and installation of “Low Temperature ThermalDesalination“ unit in Kavaratti island of Lakshadweep in 2005. The plant is producing fresh potable water from sea for about 10,000 local islanders, continuously. Equipped with the knowledge of the sea bed bathymetry near the island, the thermal gradient of 15oC (the temperature of surface water is 28oC while that of water at 350 m depth is 12oC), is utilised to evaporate the warmer water at low pressures and condense the resultant vapour with the colder water to obtain fresh water. The plant has a capacity of producing 1 lakh litre per day of freshwater of 280 ppm salinity from the original 35000 ppm salinity of the seawater. The success and unmatched health benefits to locals has encouraged ESSO-NIOT (National Institute of Ocean Technology) – an autonomous R&D institution of MoES to go for similar plants at Agatti and Minicoy islands. Six additional plants are envisaged to come up at Androth, Amini, Kalpeni, Kadamat, Kiltan and Chetlat islands, shortly.

Subsequent to the commencement of supply of this water for drinking purposes, there has been a significant drop in the incidents of water-borne diseases among the local population.

The Oceans cover more than 70 per cent of the surface of the Earth and apart from providing the vital nutrition in terms of supply of food and livelihood to millions of coastal population; it plays an important role in moderating the Earth’s climate by occupying central stage in the global
hydrological cycle. Study of ocean and collection of observational record of its various parameters is pivotal to understanding the earth processes because of linkages of oceans to natural disasters such as tsunamis, cyclones, storms and their ability in increasing the accuracy to develop models for forecasting weather and its abnormalities. Many institutions of the ministry e.g. IMD (India Meteorological Department), ESSOINCOIS (Indian National Centre for Ocean Information Services), ESSOIITM (Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology), ESSO-NCMRWF
(National Centre for Medium Range Weather Forecasting) and ESSONIOT are engaged in developing and establishing observational platforms
and climate models that provide an important inputs to such studies.

There are numerous automatic weather stations apart from the conventional IMD Observatories, the state of the art observing systems (GPS radiosonde stations, Doppler radars, Pilot Balloon stations and modern satellite data) which provide input on vital weather parameters that goes into the system of weather forecasting. Services such as Agromet advisories to Block level under “Gramin Krishi Mausam Seva” and “Aviation Weather Decision Support System” are proving to be of great value for their practical utilization in lives of common men.

Warning and Benefits
The improved weather forecasting as established during the Phailin (2013) and recent Hudhud (2014) cyclones are well known examples that saved hundreds of human lives and cattle population. The Phailin cyclone, which was one of the most powerful storms with T6.0 on intensity scale, struck the Odisha and Andhra coast causing massive destruction in the region- affecting 12 million people. This cyclone prompted India’s
biggest evacuation in 23 years with more than 550,000 people being moved from the coastline in Odisha and Andhra Pradesh to safer shelters, damaged crops worth Rs 2,400 crores and caused loss estimated to be around Rs 420 crores. The timely weather prediction and consequent rescue operations restricted loss to human lives to a minimum.

The Tsunami early Warning System, which was commissioned by ESSO-INCOIS at Hyderabad, subsequent to the devastating tsunami of Dec 26, 2004, is another example of a world class facility developed indigenously to warn coastal population of large scale disturbances of the ocean  floor that can produce high and mighty waves capable of causing large scale inundation and destruction. Using a network of broadband seismic stations and data from more than 300 Seismic stations spread over the world, a network of tsunami Buoys deployed in the Indian Ocean, several tide gauge stations and working 24×7, the Indian Tsunami early Warning System can detect the tsunami and issue advisories to the coastal regions not only in India but also to most of the Indian Ocean rim countries in record time.

Some research and developmental activities such as lobster and crab fattening by ESSO-NIOT and marine ornamental fish culture provided by ESSO-CMLRE (Centre for Marine Living Resources and Ecology) and advisories on fisheries by ESSOINCOIS by identifying the potential fishing zones (PFZ), have raised the economic conditions of fisher men  communities to a great.

An Impact Assessment and economic benefits of weather and marine services conducted by National Council of Applied EconomicResearch  (Dec, 2010) has highlighted the immense contribution made by such R&D activities. The study has estimated that total annual net economic benefits due to the scientific identification  of PFZ lie in the range of Rs 34,000 to Rs 50,000 crores, while the economic benefit from the use of
weather information was estimated  between Rs 50,000 (where 24 per cent farmers receive weather information) to Rs 211,000 crores (if all the farmers receive such information).

Exploration and Exploitation
One of the important segments of the Earth system science is the exploration of resource potential and its utilization in development of the nation. The ESSO-NCAOR (National Centre for Antarctic and Ocean Research) – a prestigious research institute located in Goa – is mandated to undertake research in the field of solid earth studies that includes conducting surveys in the up-coming fields of deep sea floor for hydro-thermal systems and poly metallic nodules that have high concentration of noble metals (gold, silver, platinum and palladium etc) and strategic minerals (such as copper, nickel, cobalt, molybdenum etc) respectively; exploration of potential sea mounts of Afanasy-Nikitin region about a thousand km south of India for cobalt enriched crust and gas hydrate – as future source of energy and the bathymetry surveys of vast areas of India’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) lying beyond the coast line of the country. This Centre has also played a key role in acquiring seismic, reflection, gravity and magnetic data over 31,000 Line Km in Bay of Bengal and Arabian Sea areas, for establishing limits of continental shelf beyond the EEZ of India.

In addition to these activities, ESSO-NCAOR is the nodal institute in India to organise, conduct and coordinate  the expeditions to Polar Regions – Arctic, Antarctic, Himalaya and Southern Ocean – aimed at a holistic understanding of the role played by cryospheric processes and Southern Ocean dynamics towards global climate change.

Arctic and Antarctic
India has strong presence in both Arctic and Antarctic. The Arctic region is critical in understanding the thermohaline circulation that originates in the northern Atlantic and drives the oceanic circulation in this part of globe thereby regulating climate. To evaluate the fast dwindling Arctic sea ice and to impart bi-hemispherical approach to the Polar science, India launched its first expedition to Arctic in 2007, which was followed soon in 2008 by establishing a Research Base- Himadri at Ny-Alesund (790 North) in Svalbard. This provided essential facilities to Indian scientists to conduct research in the field of Arctic microbiology, atmospheric science, glaciological and palaeoclimate in the extreme north. Regular monitoring of some of the glaciers and geological mapping of deformational episodes in tectonically sensitive Svalbard, is being undertaken by our scientists. India has also launched a major biogeochemical program in Kongsfjorden system in collaboration with Norway by deploying an ocean-atmospheric mooring in the fjord to collect long-term data on oceanographic, meteorological and biological parameters.

The sustained scientific research in Arctic was helpful in obtaining the Membership as Executive Member in the International Arctic Science Committee and status of an Observer in the Arctic Council.

Indian endeavor in Antarctica is comparatively much older. Our first Antarctic Base – Dakshin Gangotri (DG), was operationalised in 1983 which helped in initiating continuous monitoring of Antarctic weather and glaciological parameters. The permanent station and India’s scientific interest in the frozen continent earned India a Consultative status in Antarctic Treaty regime in 1983 itself. Due to excessive snow and ice buildup around the station, DG had to be abandoned in 1990. However, the second station- Maitri had already started taking shape in the Schirmacher Oasis, about a hundred km south of DG. Maitri was commissioned in 1990-91 with permanent weather, seismological, geomagnetic and GPS observatories in place. Maitri also provided an access to Humboldt, Gruber and other mountains chains of Wohlthat Range in the interior parts of Antarctica to Indian geologists.

Antarctica being a huge continent of about 12 million sq km area, it was thought befitting to construct an additional research station in another part of the continent to have a scientific spread in the points of data collection.  An area at a distance of about 3000 km from Maitri was shortlisted in Larsemann Hills of eastern Antarctica and a state of art modern research station-Bharati was constructed. The new station was commissioned in 2012.

Through its 33 scientific expeditions to Antarctica, launched so far, India is undertaking multidisciplinary scientific research that has helped in understanding several natural phenomenon like ozone depletion (Ozone hole) and its building up again; fluctuation and nature of the Polar ice cap, microbial diversity, nature of cold loving bacteria (psychrophyllic) that thrive in ice or permafrost and their pharmaceutical use, high resolution palaeoclimate data from study of sediment and ice cores, etc. ESSO- NCAOR scientists have retrieved ice cores from several drill holes, at times up to 100m depth, to decipher change in temperatures over past hundreds of years and build a chronological record of past climate. The deglaciation history of the areas has been built using different palaeoclimate proxies. Biological diversity of Lacustrine and terrestrial environment too has been mapped along with creating a vast base line environmental data bank.

Indian geologists have also mapped mountains in deep interior parts of central Dronning Maud land of eastern Antarctica, bringing out the history of crustal development and tectonics of rocks as old as 1000 million years.

Historic Expedition The launching of a scientific expedition to South Pole in 2010-11 marked yet another milestone in the Indian Antarctic history. Coinciding with the centenary of man’s landing on the southern tip of the Earth, a team of scientists comprising me, Javed Beg, Ajay Dhar, Pradip Malhotra, Thamban Meloth, Ashit Swain and two vehicle mechanics- Surat Singh and Krishnamoorty undertook an on-land traverse lasting for about a month to travel a distance of approximately 4,500 km to 2,835 m high Geographic South Pole and back. A traverse that tested the mental and physical strength of the team to bear bone chilling freezing temperatures, as low as minus 540C over an uneven rugged terrain, at times full of sharply crested sastrugies or knee deep soft snow was finally successful in placing an Indian flag at the South Pole on 22nd November.

ESSO-NCAOR has recently cashed its vast expertise in Polar studies by initiating integrated studies on Third Pole i.e. Himalaya. Most of the major glaciers of Chandra Basin in Himachal Pradesh have been roped in the study to start with, which is likely to bring out a clear picture of health of the glaciers and role of various components of hydrological cycle viz rain fall, snow, groundwater, melt water etc that contribute to the river discharge.

Rasik Ravindra

Rasik Ravindra

“ The writer is currently the Chair of Panikkar Professor at Earth System Science Organization, Ministry of Earth Sciences, New Delhi and the Member of UN Commission on limits of Continental shelf. He held the position of Director of National Centre for Antarctic and Ocean Research, Goa between 2006 and 2012. He also has been a veteran Polar scientist having lead expeditions to Himalaya, Arctic, Antarctic and South Pole and decorated with several national and international awards in the field of Polar science.”