Kerala researcher returns from polar exploration to a world mostly confined indoors

Kerala researcher returns from polar exploration to a world mostly confined indoors

The researcher from Thiruvananthapuram spent four months of isolation in the Arctic and home quarantine in Canada due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Vishnu Nandan has been on a different kind of isolation for four months, aboard the German research vessel Polarstern, anchored on a large sheet of sea ice in the Central Arctic, in the pitch black polar winter.

When he got back home last month, almost the entire world was in isolation. He also had to remain in home quarantine in Canada.

A native of Thiruvananthapuram, the 33-year-old polar researcher was the only Indian among 300 scientists from across the world aboard the Multidisciplinary drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate (MOSAiC) expedition, aimed at getting a better understanding of the impact of climate change and aid in improved weather projections. The largest ever Arctic expedition in history, it is also the first to conduct a study of this scale at the North Pole for an entire year.

24-hour darkness

“We were right in the middle of the Arctic Ocean, surrounded by ice, and in 24 hours of darkness for four months, with temperatures going down to minus 56 degrees. Even for medical evacuation, it would take days for help to reach,” says Dr. Nandan.

When he joined the expedition in November, the world was yet to hear about COVID-19.

The crew first heard about it when two Italian researchers on board spoke of the deaths back home.

“But we did not take it seriously initially. Since we had access to WhatsApp texts, I was getting constant updates from home, and the true intensity of the crisis hit us. At one point, while returning, we were even worried whether we would be allowed to dock in any port in Europe, as Norway refused docking at Tromso port. Later, Germany had to negotiate with Norway to secure a special permission to dock,” Dr. Nandan says.

Flight by chance

With no permission to set foot in Norway, they flew to Germany in a chartered flight.

As international flights were getting cancelled every other minute, his partner booked for him five tickets, out of which one luckily did not get cancelled.

“Isolation is not new for me, as it was something I have experienced in previous expeditions too. So, it is easier to cope with this home isolation. The stress factors are less too. This expedition was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for me, as I got to experience the polar winters and the midnight sun, celebrated my birthday at the northernmost point and cooked for the entire crew twice,” he says.

The aim of the expedition, which has a few legs remaining, is to parameterise the atmospheric, geophysical, oceanographic and all other possible variables in the Arctic, and use it to more accurately forecast the changes in our weather systems.

Remote sensing specialist

Dr. Nandan’s role as a radar remote sensing specialist is to deploy radar sensors on the sea ice surface and accurately measure the ice thickness and its variations.


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