Parmjit Singh Sehra – With rockets to India’s Antarctic Program | Polarjournal
As part of his dissertation, Dr. Singh Sehra spent a total of 18 months in Antarctica and, together with Soviet researchers, made a circumnavigation of the continent and became the first Indian to overwinter at Molodezhnaya Station. Image: courtesy of Dr. Singh Sehra

At first glance, India in Antarctica seems to be an unequal pair. However, the Asian country has been running a distinct research program since 1981 and now operates 2 active stations and a support base on the Antarctic continent. But going back a little further in history, one discovers that the igniting spark for the Indian research program had already been created many years earlier, in the mind of a young meteorologist who was the first Indian to circumnavigate Antarctica and spend the winter there: Dr. Parmjit Singh Sehra.

At the beginning of the history of the Indian Antarctic program lies not the desire for territorial expansion for king and country or the personal desire to be the first somewhere, but the dream to reach space. This dream was cherished by the Indian scientist Vikram A. Sarabhai, who is now considered the founder of the Indian space program. In the early 1970s, he wanted to look over the shoulder of Soviet researchers in Antarctica as they launched research sounding rockets from there into the atmosphere to collect meteorological data. Therefore, he selected a young, aspiring doctoral student to go to what must be the most exotic place for an Indian. The choice fell on Parmjit Singh Sehra, who wrote had been working at the Physics Research Laboratory of Gujarat University in Ahmedabad. Just 23 years old, the young scientist had no real idea what he was getting into. “I had read an article in the newspaper about the Soviet attempt to collect data on the ice cap at the South Pole and dreamed of circling Antarctica one day and standing at the South Pole myself,” Dr. Singh Sehra recalls. His dream was to become reality sooner than he himself had believed.

Among the first things you see in Antarctica are icebergs. These gigantic formations also impressed Parmijt Singh Sehra so much that he once even put himself in mortal danger to explore an iceberg. (Photo: Michael Wenger)

On the one hand, the timing for the collaboration was favorable in 1971, because the Soviet Union had planned a two-year research expedition that would circumnavigate Antarctica. In addition, they were in the process of testing new models of research sounding rockets to collect meteorological data from the upper atmosphere. And the Soviets were friendly to India thanks to the world political situation and there was a lively exchange on many levels. But on the other hand, India was (once again) in conflict with Pakistan and the situation in the country was tense (and erupted into a full-blown war in December 1971). Therefore, it was difficult for the young PhD student to obtain suitable material for an Antarctic expedition within a very short time.

“It is really a fairyland where even the fairies do not dare dwelling.”

Dr. Parmjit Singh Sehra, “A Visit to the South Pole”

India had no ambitions in the icy world at that time. Nevertheless, with the approval of his parents and the university, Parmjit Singh Sehra managed to be in Australia in time to board the Russian research vessel Akademik Viese and travel to the first point of his 18-month expedition, Mirny Station in Antarctica. The first impression that the young meteorology and atmospheric scientist from India received was overwhelming. Fascinated by the numerous icebergs, he noted in his diary, which he later published under the title “A Visit to the South Pole”: “It is really a fairyland where even the fairies do not dare dwelling.” Even the swell didn’t seem to affect him. He enjoyed sailing the Southern Ocean and focused on his initial research.

After arriving in Mirny, he spent the next 18 months in the gripping world of Antarctica. He undertook an expedition to the geographic South Pole with Soviet colleagues and accompanied a difficult 1,500 kilometer land supply trip by tractors and dog sleds to Vostok Station. Aboard the supply icebreaker Navarin, he was the first Indian to circumnavigate Antarctica. They visited not only the Soviet stations for their supply, but also those of other countries. This allowed Parmjit Singh Sehra to gather valuable data and establish valuable contacts. His circumnavigation ended at the then main station Molodezhnaya in East Antarctica, where he then spent a total of one full year. Here, as in all the previous period, he was able to carry out his research and collect numerous important data sets. With Soviet colleagues, Singh Sehra launched 60 rockets into the atmosphere and was able to show, among other things,for the first time that unusual warmings in the Antarctic winter were related to vertical flows of geothermal energy from the bottom up and through radioactive and photochemical processes in the upper atmosphere. These earned him not only his PhD, but also international recognition as a meteorologist and atmospheric physicist, and also as an expert at WMO and NASA.

The Soviet (now Russian) Molodezhnaya Antarctic Station is located on the edge of East Antarctica and was opened in 1962. Here, tests were also carried out with rockets for the exploration of the atmosphere above Antarctica. Once operated year-round, it is now open only in the summer. Image: courtesy of Parmijt Singh Sehra

During his work in Antarctica, Parmjit Singh Sehra not only got to know the beautiful and magical sides of Antarctica, but was also confronted with the struggle for survival, depression, hunger and death. For example, during the supply trip to Vostok station, the team lost two members due to illness and accident, and the sled dogs had to be killed and the meat eaten due to great exhaustion, otherwise there would not have been enough food available. Singh Sehra himself experienced the danger of Antarctica first hand when he fell into a crevasse and could only be rescued thanks to the quick help of his colleagues; another time he fell from a 200 meter high ridge and “only” lost a few teeth and broke his leg. His worst experience, however, was an expedition of his own to an iceberg near the station. An incipient snowstorm and insufficient amounts of supplies almost caused him to starve. The light conditions, especially the polar night, also gave the scientist a hard time. He wrote in his diary, “I must say that six months of continuous darkness followed by sixmonths of daylight at the South Pole was an extremely boring phenomenon of nature.” He later stated that he was very grateful for the 12-hour daily rhythm in India.

As a scientist, Dr. Singh Sehra did receive a respectable international reputation. However, recognition of his contributions to the Indian Antarctic Program was lost to history. Today he lives with his family in the Punjab region of India. Images: courtesy of Parmjit Sing Sehra

Time spent in Antarctica turned young meteorologist Parmjit Singh Sehra into an Antarctic enthusiast. He recognized the importance of the southern continent in matters of meteorology and atmospheric physics and dreamed of his country becoming a member of the Antarctic research community. To this end, on the 25th anniversary of Indian independence, he sent a letter from the South Pole to New Delhi directly to then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, proposing that India sign the Antarctic Treaty, launch expeditions to Antarctica, and also open research stations and operate an Antarctic Research Program ARPI. Dr. Parmjit Singh Sehra himself sees this message, sent to New Delhi on August 15, 1972, as the birth of the Indian Antarctic Program. But it took another 9 years until the first Indian Antarctic expedition finally started. The credit for this went to other Indian scientists and the first wintering by a single Indian in Antarctica also went down in history. For the one who had chosen and sent the young explorer off died unexpectedly shortly after the start of Singh Sehra’s expedition, and with him also went his dream.

“We humans love to dream. (…) My most cherished dream has come true.”

Dr. Parmjit Singh Sehra

Asked if he doesn’t feel left out and forgotten by history, Dr. Parmjit Singh Sehra explains” “We humans love to dream. And I dreamed of opening an Indian research station. I didn’t think then that the source of my dream would no longer be in this world. But my Antarctic experience ignited a great interest in India for further exploration of Antarctica including the opening of Indian research stations and regular expeditions since 1982. This is a very great reward for me. My most cherished dream has come true.”

Dedication by Dr. Parmjit Singh Sehra:
I dedicate my entire life and work to my parents, Mrs. Satwinder Kaur (Mother, Sarpanch, VPO Bhana, Hoshiarpur), Mr. Mohinder Singh Sehra (Father, Postmaster General, Government of India), Mr. Bir Singh Sehra (Grandfather, small farmer) and thanks to my family (Wife Dr. Bhupinder Sehra, Gynecologist), son Er. Gaurav Singh Sehra, engineer), daughter Dr. Pamela Sehra, dentist), and all others who have helped me directly or indirectly in my life and work! Let there be goodwill and peace everywhere forever!

Dr Michael Wenger, PolarJournal

Link to the PhD thesis of Dr. Parmit Singh Sehra: Atmospheric structure exploration over antarctica and interhemispheric comparison

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