A geologist’s journey from rocks to oceans, via lost penguins in Antarctica
Sugata Hazra switched specialties early in his career, after a 22-day voyage by sea. He now studies the impact of climate change on oceans, coasts and human populations.
Sugata Hazra started out on the rocks and slowly drifted out to sea, in a sense.
He graduated in geology with a focus on petroleum and rock structures and began his career with the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation. In 1991, he joined Jadavpur University in Kolkata as a teacher of geology, and went on to complete a PhD on the Delhi-Aravalli fold mountains.
It was with his eye still on the coastline that he headed to Antarctica in 1996, to study this unique landmass that was connected to India before the breakup of Gondwanaland.
“I experienced the endless ocean for 22 days. There was so much that was new to me, from the albatross to penguins. It struck me that here was this vast part of the world that I knew very little about. The seas were completely uncharted territory and that excited me,” he says.
Upon his return, he switched focus from rocks to the seas. By 2000, Hazra had immersed himself in the related interdisciplinary area of oceanography, including signing up to work on a project on integrated coastal zone management undertaken by Jadavpur university. He is now a professor of oceanography there.
Hazra’s inclination to follow one passion and then another, as well as his curiosity about the world, he says, come from his time at the Patha Bhavana school at Santiniketan, the education town established by poet, philosopher and Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore in West Bengal in 1901.
The school runs on Tagore’s philosophy of education driven by the joy of learning. Children study outdoors for the most part. “As there were no boundaries, we could explore the nature all around us,” Hazra says. “There was this red lateritic wasteland that had a lot of fossils. When I was in Class 4 or 5, I used to visit this wasteland and pick up quartz stones and fossils of species that can be traced back to Gondwanaland (about 250 million years ago). It was like a treasure hunt for me.”
These years inspired him to study rocks. Now 63, his area of focus has shifted again, going beyond oceans to the impact of climate change on coasts and coastal populations too. “A lot of human and biotic components have entered my study as climate change and rising sea levels are starting to affect a lot of people on the coasts and life in the sea,” he says. “How the health of mangroves in the Sundarban delta is affected by salinity, sea level rise and cyclones like Amphan is also part of my field of study.”
In Purulia district, for instance, he is working with marginal farmers to study the impact of shifting monsoon cycles and resultant floods and droughts on their yields and livelihood. “They are harvesting water, planning crops accordingly and we are aiding and observing this adjustment,” Hazra says.
He still thinks back often to that four-month stay in Antarctica. “The only more interesting place left for me to travel to is the moon,” he says, adding that there were unusual lessons he learnt in that almost-alien land.
“The most fascinating but harsh experience was when I once found a penguin that had strayed into the mainland from the sea and was starving. I wasn’t allowed to save it. We were not supposed to interfere with the natural cycle there,” Hazra says. “There were birds that survived on these lost penguins, so all of it was part of the ecological balance.”