National Institute of Oceanography, India - Research Contribution

Research Contribution

An example of the dual role is a project on polymetallic nodules that has been sponsored by the Government of India at the institute for well over 25 years. By the late 1970s the government had decided that the country needed to enhance its resources of minerals of strategic interest. NIO was given the responsibility of exploring the oceans for this purpose. On 26 January 1981, NIO hauled up polymetallic nodules from a depth of 4,800 m in the western Indian Ocean using its first research vessel, RV Gaveshani, which was acquired in 1976.

Subsequently, work by NIO researchers helped India to gain the status of “Pioneer Investor” from the International Sea Bed Authority. While this research was aimed at placing the country in a strategically enhanced position, it also provided the Institute an opportunity to study the marine geology and geophysics of the Indian Ocean. Some of the issues they addressed are the following: Evolution of the Indian tectonic plates and its implications; determination of the time when the Himalayas started rising leading to monsoonal climate of the Indian subcontinent; nature of mid-ocean ridges (where new crusts form); characteristics of marine sedimentary facies; the role of rivers on the Indian subcontinent in marine sediment budget and paleoclimatic evolution as archived in the sediment cores.

During the first decade and a half of its founding, besides developing its main campus at Goa, a major project taken up by the Institute was organizing the first Indian Expedition to Antarctica in 1981. This project, together with exploration for polymetallic nodules, established close ties between NIO and the then Department of Ocean Development and subsequently the Ministry of Earth Sciences, Government of India. These ties helped the institute to grow while the government expanded the infrastructure for ocean research, technology and services in the country.

Since the early 1980s, an important theme for basic research in the Institute has been, and continues to be, understanding oceanographic implications of the special characteristics of the North Indian basin, which has some unique features: the basin is strictly tropical, with the Asian landmass restricting it south of about 25 degrees N; it is a relatively small basin when compared to the North/South Atlantic/Pacific and even the South Indian Ocean and, of course, there is the seasonality imposed by the monsoons. In the figure above red areas represent areas with elevation of a few kilometers. The presence of the Tibetan Plateau and the Himalayas influences the monsoons.

NIO's scientists have made handsome contributions to understanding the implications of these special features through observations and analyses. The former have included ship-based observations, time-series data collected with moored instruments and satellite data. ORV Sagar Kanya, which was acquired by the Government of India for use by oceanographic research institutions in India, has been playing a major role in these observations.

As noted earlier, an important theme of research at NIO has been understanding the oceanography of the North Indian Ocean – a tropical and small basin driven by strongly seasonal winds. The uppermost 200 m (oceans are on average about 4000 m deep) form the most active portion of the ocean. Here, major currents are forced by winds, and primary producers (microscopic plants that drift with currents) set the stage for intricate interactions that go across the traditional boundaries between disciplines, leading to a new discipline, biogeochemistry of the oceans. Some of NIO's most cited research contributions have been about two aspects of the upper layer: its circulation and biogeochemistry. Currents in this layer are driven by winds. As these are periodic over the North Indian Ocean, so are the currents, in striking contrast to other tropical regions of the world. The link between the winds and currents, however, is rather intricate. NIO researchers played a leading role in defining the nature of seasonality in the currents over the basin in general, and along the coast of India in particular. Subsequent analysis and model studies showed that the circulation of the North Indian Ocean needs to be looked at holistically across the basin because the winds at a location influence not only the local current, but have an impact on the current at remote locations at a later time owing to the propagation of large scale waves. For example, it is now known that the winds along the Indian east coast have a major impact on the seasonal cycle of the current off the Indian west coast.

By restricting the North Indian Ocean to south of 25o N, the Asian landmass prevents the basin from having access to the sub-tropical convergence zone, a region that usually occurs at a latitude of about 40o and is an important supplier of oxygen to the ocean. Not having access to such a regime, the North Indian Ocean is starved of oxygen. Another reason why oxygen is low is the consequence of high concentration of the primary producers of the region. When these plants and zooplankton that feed on them die and sink they get microbially degraded, thus consuming oxygen. NIO researchers have played a major role in answering critical questions concerning the processes that go on in this basin with lower than normal oxygen levels. Some of the questions that have been addressed are the following: Does the monsoon cycle lead to other seasonal cycles, such as that of biological production and flux of sinking particles? What are the special features of biogeochemistry of the ocean regime with low oxygen? How do the biogeochemical processes (denitrification, for example) that characterize this system work? What are the physical processes that sustain high productivity in the region? How does the monsoon cycle influence temporal evolution of ecosystems in the region?

The research contributions (journal publications, reports, books, etc.) from the Institute that provide details about the contributions mentioned above are available from the NIO website, www.nio.org. NIO's journal publications have shown a robust growth during the last few years.

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