March 21, 2023

Research in Antarctica: Eight months of polar darkness, isolation and cold

UCalgary postdoctoral associate Vishnu Nandan heads to one of the most remote places on Earth to study declining sea ice
Vishnu Nandan on a previous expedition to the Arctic
Vishnu Nandan on a research expedition to the Arctic. Julienne Stroeve

While most of us count down the days to the return of spring and summer, Dr. Vishnu Nandan, PhD’18, a postdoctoral associate with the University of Calgary, will be spending the next eight months in the darkness, cold and isolation of Antarctica, all for science. 

Nandan’s research focus is on finding ways to improve how radar satellites measure the thickness of Antarctic sea ice (frozen ocean waters) and snow. The issue is that the amount of Antarctic snow that falls on sea ice is so thick (up to a metre), it’s difficult to get accurate satellite readings of actual snow and sea ice thickness. 

“Snow can be sometimes fluffy, sometimes dense like a hard slab, sometimes very wet, just like what we see outside. Sometimes, snow is so thick that it floods sea ice sitting below and the whole mass becomes dangerously slushy. And radar signals don’t like all these complications,” explained Nandan prior to his departure. 

As a result of these radar inaccuracies, Nandan, a Mitacs postdoctoral associate with the Cryosphere Climate Research Group at UCalgary with Dr. John Yackel, MSc’95, PhD, works in the field to collect data so researchers can learn how to better account for these errors and correct satellite algorithms to produce accurate measurements critical for climate-change projections. He is also a research associate at the University of Manitoba with Dr. Julienne Stroeve, PhD.

This is one of the reasons why he’ll be spending Calgary’s spring, summer and fall this year in the wintery climate of Antarctica, returning to Calgary just in time for our next winter.

The research trip is part of a British-based project called DEFiANT, which aims to deploy a state-of-the-art ground-based radar system that mimics the satellites in space. Nandan and Dr. Robbie Mallett, PhD, from UManitoba will lead this campaign and their joint efforts will help researchers to better understand how snow affects sea-ice thickness readings from satellites.

Vishnu Nandan on a previous Arctic trip

Vishnu Nandan on a previous Arctic trip.

Lars Barthel

Nandan was chosen for this project on account of his field-based excellence, which he says has helped prepare him for the challenges of his deployment to one of the most remote places on Earth. He described the impressions some may have of living in Antarctica most of the year: 

All winter for, like, eight months, you are in darkness, you are isolated from the rest of the planet, it’s insanely cold, windy and the loneliness eats you through.

“Over the past decade, I have been doing lots of fieldwork so, based on my expertise and my leadership in the field, I was invited to join this campaign.” 

This isn’t Nandan’s first time undertaking such challenging fieldwork; he also did similar research a few years ago in the central Arctic Ocean, where he also spent many months in the cold and dark during 2019’s MOSAiC Expedition, the largest expedition in polar history, which placed researchers on an icebreaker for a year in an extended examination of global warming from a vantage point close to the North Pole. 

During his time in Antarctica, Nandan will be working at the Rothera Research Station, the U.K.’s largest Antarctic facility, which is located on Adelaide Island, nearly 1,900 kilometres south of the Falkland Islands. 

The opportunity to visit Antarctica is not something Nandan takes lightly. 

“You know, astronauts, they crave to be in space, they crave to be on board the International Space Station for many months. As a polar scientist, I feel like them because, all these years, yes, I have been doing fieldwork almost every year for a few weeks to months,” he said. “But, being a part of an all-wintering team in the Antarctic is a big achievement for me. I am blessed, humbled and lucky to be a part of it.”

Nandan’s research is supported by both UCalgary (with UCalgary also supported via Mitacs Accelerate) and UManitoba.

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