Blog dedicated primarily to randomly selected news items; comments reflecting personal perceptions

Thursday, March 10, 2016

The Ultimate Getaway

"How do people's psychological processes go when they're down there for a whole year? There's very little in the way of quantitative data."
"In fact a fair number of people say the culture shock is greater coming back [from Antarctica] than it was going there."
Dr. Peter Suedfeld, UBC psychology professor emeritus

"Overwintering crew members regress further into their own rooms and minds, which can be dangerous."
"It's almost as if our senses become under-stimulated and wither in the darkness, ice and silence. So when a new stimuli comes along it can be disproportionately fascinating. It has been some time since I stubbed my toe walking around the station barefooted in the dark. But I can tell you it hurt each and every time, even more."
British medical doctor Alexander Kumar

"With no point of reference [continual winter-dark atmosphere] I regularly find myself wide-awake in the middle of the night and falling asleep at lunch!"
"We greeted it [the returning sun] as if it was a long-lost friend."
British doctor Beth Healey
ESA   The barren landscape surrounding Concordia station in Antarctica is often dubbed “White Mars.”
Well, that's the environment, temperatures ranging around minus-80 degrees Centigrade, feeling worse, much worse, when a snowstorm is raging and the wind bellowing, amid perpetual darkness during Antarctica long winter months. But these are the conditions in the white endless landscape of a barren southernmost tip of the Earth. Those who are stationed there are subject to emotional ups and downs, coping with sensory deprivation, loneliness and bone-tingling dry conditions.

Since the Antarctic landscape resembles what scientists consider to be an other-worldly landscape in outer space, research is being conducted specifically to study the psychological and physical effects on the human brain and body through living in the harsh conditions of Antarctica in the hope that this will give insights into the changes that astronauts will encounter and need to struggle with in future space missions to other planets in the empty, cold and dark atmosphere of space.

Canadian researchers supported by financial grants from the Canadian Space Agency have set out to collaborate on a global research project focusing on the effects of living in icy-harsh conditions, and how that might translate to understanding what will be in store for coping mechanisms for future space travel. Studies are under way at two research stations, the Concordia station operated by French and Italian polar institutes and the Halley station, operated by the British Antarctic Survey.
ESA   For nine months, no aircraft or land vehicles can reach Concordia station in Antarctica and the Sun does not rise above the horizon for 100 days

Dr. Suedfeld points out the conditions faced by people living in Antarctica with its vast white desert, isolated from contact with others by distance and harsh climate; almost unreachable during the cold winter months when few flights can be safely managed should rescue be required. Although medical practitioners are stationed there, what they can accomplish is limited. Famously the American doctor, Jerri Nielson had to operate on herself when she discovered she had breast cancer.

If interpersonal relations become strained, there is nowhere to retire to other than each individual's private room. There is high interest in how and whether brain function may undergo alterations from what is considered the norm; whether and how sleep patterns could be deleteriously affected, and how eyes accustomed to light during the day and darkness at night when we normally sleep, might be impacted when there is no difference between night and day; black night consumes both day and night.

Professor Suedfeld is prepared to analyze audio diaries that crew members are tasked to record on a weekly basis; pitch, rhythm and speed are assessed to determine whether stressors are present linked to living conditions. Cardiovascular systems, muscle function and bone marrow cells will be examined to determine what, if any changes occur, just as they do in the weightlessness of space which impacts on the body accustomed to Earth's gravity.

Internet and telephone access is available, just as these modes of communication are present in space ships. But it has been observed through personal introspection by crew members like Alexander Kumar that a tendency to withdraw during the long winter prevails. When the sun reappears in spring, there is a release of tensions. This, in fact, is what northern-dwelling people experience, living in their normal exposure to long, harsh winter months, expressing relief when winter succumbs to spring.

For those who have the experience of living in the vast isolation of the Antarctic, busy in spurts, boringly without activity at many other times, their exposure to a hauntingly beautiful landscape, and the camaraderie in the presence of others isolated along with them can change the way people regard life, and transform them in many ways. They have an idea of the strength of their endurance, their resilience and creativity.

ESA   The aurora australis is a well-deserved bonus for the crew of 13 who are spending the winter months at Concordia station in Antarctica

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