India in the Arctic

Reindeer Svalbard
Reindeers grassing in front of the Global Seed Vault, Svalbard Island. Photo: Renato Granieri/Visitnorway.com.

As an observer member of the Arctic Council, with their own Arctic research station on Svalbard Island and a steadily greater focus on Arctic and the Antarctic, India’s engagement in polar research is an important part of the bilateral relations with Norway. In August, Dr Uttam Sinha (Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses - IDSA) and Dr Vijay Chauthaiwale (Department of Foreign Affairs, Bharatiya Janata Party) visited Svalbard and Oslo to experience the India-Norway cooperation.

What is the background and purpose of your visit to Norway? 

As part of the on-going cooperation between IDSA and PRIO (Peace Research Institute Oslo), field visits were undertaken to Svalbard Island that included the Global Seed Vault in Longyearbyen and the Indian Arctic research station Himadri in Ny-Ålesund. The IDSA-PRIO cooperation started in 2005 and has rigorously examined the various dimensions of climate change and its connections to water, food and energy issues.

Dr Åshild Kolås, Professor at PRIO and co-leader of the institutional cooperation, spiritedly worked out the content and the logistics and accompanied us with great enthusiasm to Svalbard. While we visited the site of the Global Seed Vault in Longyearbyen, entry, however, was prohibited because of repair work due to melt water that had gushed down the start of the tunnel and then frozen, thankfully without entering deeper into the vault.

Dr Kim Holmèn from the Norwegian Polar Institute explained to us the history and purpose of the seed vault, the site-selection and the formidable security features. He also grimly stated that melting of the permafrost in the Arctic combined with heavy rain instead of snow is leading to unpredictable challenges of maintaining the vault.

Dr Holmèn further highlighted how the climate change has affected the Arctic. Just 30-years back, there used to be one meter sheet of ice on sea during winter, which is now almost disappeared. Warming of water has several collateral damages to the ecosystem. Killer Whales, who couldn't enter this area due to hump on their back (which prevented them to go below ice sheet) are now commonly visible, and with warmer water the giant King Crabs have proliferated to such an extent that their presence is damaging the marine environment.

The fact that India made its first seed deposit of one box of 25 accessions of pigeon pea in April 2014 made the visit interesting and relevant. The pigeon pea is an important crop for small-scale farmers in semi-arid areas in India and is regarded as one of the most valuable crops for global food security. The pigeon pea is a high priority research subject at the Hyderabad office of the International Crop Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics, and India undoubtedly has a key role to play in worldwide effort to conserve crop diversity and develop food resistant to the vagaries of climate change.

Few people have visited the Indian research station Himadri in Ny-Ålesund. Please share some impressions!

It is an unforgettable experience to land at Ny-Ålesund, 1234 kilometres from the North Pole, the centre for international Arctic scientific research and the world’s northern most human habitat. Ny-Ålesund is a great place to observe climate change and has an all year permanent population (mostly scientists) of about 35 and a summer population close to 120.

Ny-Ålesund is unique in many ways. There are 15 permanent research stations. The Indian station, Himadri was inaugurated by Kapil Sibal in 2008. Scientists from various streams come to Ny-Ålesund to conduct experiments, collect samples and data for further analysis and then return to their homeland. Most of the research stations are functional even during peak winter (less than -20 degree Celsius), while Himadri remains closed during this time.

The scientists at Ny-Ålesund are a commune with a strong sense of global community doggedly working towards an integrated, coherent and policy-relevant Arctic science. Collaboration is the key principle for research. Common research facilities like the Zeppelin Observatory on the mountain and the marine biology lab are truly inspirational. These research facilities provide data that we could never imagine. For example, 10-days after the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan in 2011, the observatory in Ny-Ålesund detected sharp peak of radioactivity in the upper atmosphere.

One has to be alert to the do’s and don’ts at Ny-Ålesund, for example, to walk always on the designated roads and paths and not on the delicate soft ground so as to prevent damage to the ecosystem. An equally interesting part was the rule of removing shoes at every entrance and wearing in-house slippers. We must have done this exercise more than 20 times in 24 hrs. Doors of research station always remain unlocked, in case one is chased by the Polar Bear one can easily enter into any of the stations.

Why should India be engaging in the Arctic region?

The developments in the Arctic region are important for India, and its interests are principally scientific. India has also been an observer member of the Arctic Council since 2013 along with other Asian countries including China, Japan, Korea and Singapore. Its scientific footprint in the Arctic is an extension of its polar research endeavours in the Antarctic and this brings the science closer home to the Himalayas. The Antarctic-Arctic-Himalaya is now described as the ‘Three Poles’ with the Himalayan system as the Third Pole.

India also needs to expand its research objectivity and upgrade facilities in wintertime. From October and onwards, Indian scientists undertake no research activities. Winter observations and findings would add new dimension to India’s scientific knowledge on the Arctic, especially in the field of glaciology. There is great scope for collaborative research not only with the Norwegian Polar Institute, but also with other countries like Germany, France and China.

There are also growing commercial and strategic interests that India cannot ignore. India is one of the fastest energy consumer in the world and the Arctic presents an opportunity to join hands with the Arctic littorals like Russia in exploring the hydrocarbon potential. India’s labour force with skills in port development and mining can help develop the Barents region.

What scope do you see for India-Norway cooperation in the Arctic?

India’s Arctic engagement is an important part of bilateral relations with Norway and its participation in the Arctic Council will further strengthen the relations. Just as Norway is a leader in Arctic research, India too has taken regional responsibilities in integrating the region through science and technology. The significance of the Himalaya mountain system, the Third Pole concept and the relevance of integrated science and cooperation is critical in South Asia.  In order to meet the growing scientific activities in the Arctic and the Antarctic, it is critically important for India to build its Polar Research Vehicle that can cut through ice sheets and glaciers.

The National Centre for Antarctic and Ocean Research in Goa will be marking 20 years of existence in 2018 and Himadri will be 10 years in 2018. As a milestone, this gives India great opportunity to highlight and showcase its polar research and initiatives. To celebrate this landmark, activities can be organised with the Norwegian Polar Institute. The idea of celebrating the International Yoga Day in Ny-Ålesund in 2018 can bring great attention to the world’s only international research centre. In addition, the Norwegian Polar Institute is planning to organise an international climate conference in Ny-Ålesund in 2018. This is a good opportunity for India to participate and highlight its climate policy, especially in the renewable solar sector. India can explore the possibility of solar energy in Ny-Ålesund.

India has its own seed vault at a height of 17,500 feet at Chang-La in the Himalayas, 75 kilometres from Leh in Ladakh. The vault, which opened in 2009 with 5000 seeds, has an actual capacity of 10 times more than the current holding. As the Arctic draws India and Norway closer, the seed vaults at high latitudes in both Svalbard and Leh can bring in greater scientific and technical cooperation in transgenic cropping.  

Photo: Dr Vijay Chauthaiwale (Department of Foreign Affairs, BJP), Dr Uttam Sinha (IDSA), Dr Kim Holmèn (Norwegian Polar Institute) and Dr Åshild Kolås (PRIO).