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India plans third Antarctic base

International community to look at proposal afresh.

Goa

Sometimes it's nice to catch up with your old neighbourhood, even if you have been gone for some time. Indian researchers are taking this desire to extremes with a campaign for a new Antarctic base in Princess Elizabeth Land — a part of the continent that, 120 million years ago, was contiguous with India's eastern coast. But the idea has been opposed by other countries and environmental groups.

Last year, India's proposal for such a base was turned down at an Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting (ATCM) in Edinburgh. Now the proposal has been resubmitted to this year's ATCM, which started in New Delhi on 30 April. “This time we have made a strong scientific case for locating the base in Larsemann Hills,” says Rasik Ravindra, director of the National Centre for Antarctic and Ocean Research (NCAOR) in Goa, India.

But the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition (ASOC), a pressure group based in Washington DC that opposes the Indian base, continues to voice doubts. “There have been concerns about the integration of India's plans with the plan for an ASMA (Antarctica Specially Managed Area) by Australia, China, Romania and Russia,” says James Barnes, ASOC's Executive Director. Ravindra says that India favours the Larsemann Hills being designated as an ASMA, and would accept the special controls on environmental damage that such a classification would entail.

A 75-page environmental evaluation report prepared by NCAOR seeks to allay fears that the Indian station would harm the Antarctic environment. The effect, if any, would be only “minor or transitory”, the report concludes. India would be willing to quit the base in 25 years, removing all signs of its existence, says Ravindra.

Home from home: India wants a research base in the Larsemann Hills. Credit: S. RAJAN/NCAOR

Some Indian researchers think that other countries are trying to exclude them. “It is like entering an unreserved compartment in a train to find the seats are taken,” says Ravindra. They think they were in first and so others must keep out.” Prem Chand Pandey, former director of NCAOR, suspects that the powers in situ have an economic motive: “The area is very rich in hydrocarbons and those who are already in that area do not want others to come there.” Although Antarctic resources cannot be exploited under the terms of the Antarctic treaty, that could change in the future.

One scientist notes that during Indian survey work in the area, helicopters from nearby Australian, Russian and Chinese bases were watching from above. These countries supported their opposition to the Indian base with the claim that the area had already suffered “human impacts.” In a conciliatory move, Australia offered Indian researchers facilities at its station as an alternative to a new base. But India declined the offer because it “would not have been practical” and because Indians preferred to have their own base, Rajan says.

Having permission refused for a permanent base will not stop India's research. “Nobody can stop us from going and doing research in the site we have chosen,” says Maruthadu Sudhakar, a senior scientist at NCAOR who led a survey team to Larsemann Hills two years ago. But a new base would make the logisitics easier. It would be closer to current work sites and it would be well sited for studies of the geomagnetic field — as the magnetic field lines studied at the Larsemann Hills would be those already under investigation at magnetic observatories in Hungary and Denmark. The new base could also be a good ground station for the Indian ocean-observing satellite due to be launched in 2008.

But the main reason for selecting the site was to investigate how India broke away from Antarctica. Indian scientists hope that the Larsemann Hills will reveal vestiges of the Indian Mahanadi River, which flowed there about 130 million years ago when the continent was part of Gondwanaland. “The correlation between the two distant locations with respect to lithology, structure, tectonics and other geological constraints would help in fine-tuning the Gondwana fit,” says Rajan.

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Jayaraman, K. India plans third Antarctic base. Nature 447, 9 (2007). https://doi.org/10.1038/447009a

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