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Overwintering in the dark at the South Pole

Posted August 17, 2012 @ 7:12pm | by TravelWild

The achievement of Curiosity landing on Mars has caused many to speculate about future human expeditions to our neighboring planet. Training for an inter-planetary expedition might consist of overwintering at one of the South Pole Research Stations; a stay on Mars has been imagined to be similar to an extended stay on the frozen continent.

In fact, researchers at the South Pole are currently examining people’s experiences at the South Pole to forecast how humans would hold up, if stationed on Mars for extended periods of time. Lack of daylight, diminished sensory stimulation and boredom are characteristics of surviving a winter at the South Pole.

Dr. Alexander Kumar is researching and blogging about his and his fellow compatriots’ challenges of living through “the worst winter in the world.”

Dr Alexander Kumar (is) based at the Concordia research station in the centre of Antarctica, a place so remote – and so cold – that it is only possible to get in and out for three months of the year.

He is trying to understand the physical and psychological effects of human space travel, particularly the role of extreme isolation. BBC Future spoke to Dr Kumar about life at the station and how his stay may be the fore runner for a manned mission to the red Planet.

Can you describe where you are now?

I am in a place I have come to call ‘White Mars’ – the heart of Antarctica.It is the coldest, darkest and most extreme environment on our planet. The outside temperature has again fallen below -80C (-112F) or -99.9C (-148F) with wind chill – the extreme limit of its scale. Inside, the window is frozen over, entombed with ice and it remains dark outside, as it has done so 24 hours a day for the past three months. And we are at an equivalent altitude of 3800m above sea level, making it difficult to breathe.”

The BBC interview explores what we can learn about potentially living on Mars from Antarctica, the effects of human loneliness and sensory deprivation, and the necessity of keeping a routine and staying active.

Has your time in Concordia led you to any conclusions about the ideal crew for a manned Mars mission?

Although it is difficult to say how many crew members would be ideal – balancing skills, ability for self-sufficiency and finite resources available, against increased medical risk, I believe it would need a psychologically and physically screened diverse, multinational crew – ideally with past space experience or having spent time at a place like Concordia. They would need to be mentally resilient and have a full complement of skills to ensure that they can all contribute to the mission, remain active and in a way distracted from dwelling on their isolation.

All those interested must be driven by the innate curiosity and enthusiasm to answer life’s greatest question in the same way those had who replied to a fabled advertisement once offered by Sir Ernest Shackleton, “Men wanted for hazardous journey. Small wages. Bitter cold. Long months of complete darkness.”

While much has progressed in 100 years,  Kumar’s experience recalls the words of Apsley Cherry-Garrard, British polar explorer and survivor of Capt Robert Falcon Scott’s 1910 expedition, who wrote, “Polar exploration is at once the cleanest and most isolated way of having a bad time which has been devised.”

Musing on the hurdles faced by Sir Shackleton, Portland, Oregon storyteller Lawrence Howard retells the explorer’s story in a successful solo show which he performs live on stage.

Shackleton’s third attempt at glory on Antarctica quickly turned into one of survival, when The Endurance, after leaving South Georgia Island, became trapped in the ice of the Weddell Sea, short of the continent. For 10 months, through temperatures dipping to 40-below — 10 months! — the crew sat on The Endurance waiting for ice to thaw, fit with plenty of food and fuel and plenty of frustration.

Ice didn’t thaw, it crushed the ship, and men camped on the ice for months — months, in the frigidness. When ice started to melt, the men fled on three lifeboats, enduring seven days in woeful conditions to reach tiny Elephant Island.

“Shackleton realized nobody would rescue them from Elephant Island,” Howard says. The only chance would be for Shackleton and some crew to take one lifeboat back to South Georgia Island; by sail, it would have been impossible to get to the nearest point, Tierra del Fuego at the southern tip of South America. The winds and seas would have torn them apart.

Still enduring tremendous swells, the men aboard the lifeboat … “made a journey of 800 miles across one of the stormiest and most perilous oceans in the entire world,” Howard says.

It took 17 days to crash-land on South Georgia Island, but to Shackleton’s dismay, it was the southern shore and not the northern part, the location of whaling stations. Shackleton and Frank Worsley and Tom Crean — “the three great heroes of the story,” Howard says — made the incredible hike across the uncharted mountains of South Georgia to arrive at the whaling stations.

It took four tries and nearly five months to get back to Elephant Island, where the fellow men of The Endurance had survived by making huts out of the two remaining lifeboats. “

Today, research stations, technology and satellite communications have kept visitors, scientists, explorers, and inhabitants much safer. (There are no crash landings on South Georgia Island!) Travelers who take a cruise to Antarctica skip the isolation, hardship, winter darkness, and other hazards. The Antarctic tourist season begins in November, and your senses will not suffer from Kumar’s challenges of deprivation, but will be beautifully overwhelmed at the breathtaking wildlife, landscapes and icebergs.

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