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Life stirs under the snow

Kolkata based scientist, Supriyo Das, claims to have found signs of plant mutation, growth of new fern-like species, never before seen in Antarctica.

Surjo William Sarkar | New Delhi |

Are we witnessing the greening of Antarctica? Pre-Ice Age Antarctica was densely forested. Under those fields of ice, still hide fossils of huge tree stumps. Lately scientists have been noting a sudden boom in algae growth of different kinds and colours. And now a Kolkata based scientist, Supriyo Das, claims to have found signs of plant mutation – the growth of new fern-like species, never before seen in Antarctica. Species that can only survive at temperatures higher than those so far recorded at the poles. Such a discovery (if proved) would be very significant – a milestone in the history of understanding climate change and the adaptation processes of Nature. Two labs in Japan and Sweden have confirmed his initial findings and now Das is busy getting fresh samples from Antarctica. I was lucky to meet him before he embarked and he has followed up that interview with emails from Antarctica.

When Supriyo Das opened the door to his house on a typically narrow North Kolkata lane in Beliaghata, he looked like the quintessential Bengali professor with a weakness for fish and rice, a good book and his cozy room. It seemed unbelievable that this man would in a week be in one of the world’s most challenging terrains, risking his life to prove his scientific findings.

Yet on 21 December, the summer solstice in Antarctica, Das was sharing his daily routine from the Indian station there.

This is his recollection… 9.00 am. Group meeting with station leader after breakfast. Then scientific teams leave for fieldwork leaving the cook to prepare lunch for them.

The sea ice is getting weaker day-byday. When I arrived at Bharati Station on 09 December the sea ice was strong, and I went to nearby islands on a snow scooter.

But I am now trekking only to the sites close to the station especially to the lakes that I had planned to sample from.

We follow the buddy system here, as we are not allowed to venture out alone. 5pm: On a normal day, I come back to station. A short rest then I clean myself with wipes as in Antarctica we can take showers only twice a week. Fresh water is extremely valuable at the station.

There are plenty of freshwater lakes around Larsemann Hills where the Bharati Station is situated, but the station cannot use them and must use only specially treated sea water as the lakes are under the Antarctica Specially Managed Area.

When not in the field or the station laboratory we have community and galley duties which include cleaning certain areas of the station and helping the cook.

8.00-9.00 pm: Dinner time. After dinner, we often watch movies. I often make WhatsApp calls to my family. IST is 30 minutes ahead of the local time at Bharati. The sun never sets during summer. Only the clock tells the time, and body listens. We sleep to get enough rest for a fresh start next morning.

And the discovery? “It is too early to make any comment on the scientific findings but the work is progressing in the right direction, and I hope I will be able to report some interesting results from the expedition”, says the professor.

Das, a professor of Geology at Presidency University took up the subject because he was told he could travel a lot. “While my friends kept struggling with JEE, I joined Presidency having topped the entrance exam.” Masters was at IIT Roorkee. Our financial situation was not good so I had never really thought about going abroad. I found two PhD offers online from Sweden and South Africa. The Swedish one was a full scholarship and so i went and completed my PhD in December 2007. I loved travelling. But I never wanted to settle abroad, and my mother wanted me to return home. So I joined Presidency as a UGC assistant professor and that’s where I am.” says Das.

So far, he has participated in several important research projects. One such project the International Ocean Discovery Programme (IODP) had him living for two months in a special vessel in the middle of the Bay of Bengal. “It was quite an experience not being able to see greenery for two months”

The Antarctica project was completely voluntary. He pushed it with authorities for two years to secure a berth and undertook rigorous training to be able to cope with the challenges of the land and climate of Antarctica summer. His excitement at his findings was clear even as he explained his plans at his residence.

“As you know, temperatures are increasing around the world. Antarctica was once covered in forests, millions of years ago. Now the only vegetation you can find are ‘mats’ of cyanobacteria. Cyanobacteria aren’t really bacteria or algae, they are somewhere in between. Other types of moss and lichens are also found. I have researched around eight samples. A couple of years back another team has previously visited Antarctica had brought some sedimentary samples. I had requested the team head to give me the sediments after they were done with them, and he gladly gave them to me for testing. The organisms in the samples are obviously not visible to the naked eye, or even a microscope. They can only be seen with a mass spectrometer. These were recent sediments collected from the top of the pile.

“Now comes the interesting part. I found signals of algal mats and surprisingly enough, of ferns. There are no such ferns in Antarctica. Also, using our research techniques we can find the temperature at which the sediments were formed. In this case, my results got me thinking. The temperature I got was 10 degrees Celsius. That is too high for Antarctica, and sediments from the surface were formed recently. So why did this happen?

“These primitive forms of life adapt in their own ways to harsh conditions. Chemical changes occur in their membranes as the weather turns more ruthless. We need to identify these changes and understand at what temperatures they occurred. These can be easily understood using a process called calibration. But our scientists have not yet studied this aspect.

taken the samples to a lab called Kochi Core Centre in Japan where it was tested and they found the same signals. I have also sent the samples to Sweden and my colleague there is going to test them. I am getting them tested abroad since in India people often simply say that you made a mistake and refuse to listen. Once I go there and get my own samples, it shall all be clear. There are a lot of restrictions and precautions to be taken in Antarctica. One is prohibited from roaming alone without a radio operator. And special vehicles and helicopters are there to transport scientists. Since Supriyo is working near a lake and the ice is melting he has to be very careful. Even if a small portion of any of his clothes get wet he rushes back to base and changes into dry things to avoid frostbite.

Supriyo is busy exploring the lakes of Antarctica and collecting the sediments that have accumulated in those lakes. “Since they have been accumulating in layers for thousands of years totally undisturbed weather signals can be found in each layer. In every new layer formed within every 5-10 years you can find signals from which you can ascertain the average weather conditions of that period. The topmost layer being the newest.”

He added that the research will take months if not years. There is nothing he could say right now. “One has to wait till the research is complete.” Far, far away from friends and family Supriyo is happy with the work atmosphere.

“Bharati is a small India where people from different religion, language, culture and background meet and work together. The unity, friendship and cooperation, I see here, are often lacking on the mainland” says the scientist.