Alex Kumar and Beth Healey
Concordia is a French-Italian base lying at 3200m on the Dome Charlie Antarctic Plateau (75.1° S, 123.3° E). Over winter, temperatures plummet to as low as -80°C and the skeleton crew of 13 live in complete darkness, alone and unreachable. Alex Kumar spent a year at the station employed by the European Space Agency (ESA Research MD and Station Medical Doctor) and has since returned; Beth Healey (ESA Research MD) is a few months into her yearlong placement at the Station. We talked to both about life at the extreme edge of the medical and psychological experience.
Why is Concordia such a unique environment?
AK / Antarctica is the kind of place you feel like you dropped off the map to get to and Concordia is a place of environmental extremes. We endured around three months of complete darkness, with the sun never rising above the horizon, chronic hypobaric hypoxia (the station sits at 3800m) and temperatures colder than -80°C. We also experienced complete isolation, with no means of escape for nine months. Nothing lives outside the station for over 1000km in nearly all directions. Among our nearest neighbours were the astronauts orbiting the earth on board the International Space Station.
Answering the job advertisement for what may be the coldest and loneliest job in the world, I found packing my mind for a year away was much more difficult than my bags” Alex Kumar.
Antarctica is an ill-defined space in people’s minds. It incorporates South Georgia and other sub Antarctic islands, which are in fact closer to South America than the continent of Antarctica itself. People can (and have) sailed to South Georgia even during its winter but the interior of Antarctica remains an impenetrable block of ice. Even a team led by Sir Ranulph Fiennes (Coldest Journey) could not breach the continent’s interior during winter.
It is the coldest science on earth. Antarctica’s ice layer protects and hides its secrets like a thick skin, stretched over the bedrock many thousands of feet below. Recent efforts at Russia’s Antarctic Vostok station tapped the veins of the sub-glacial lakes, which flow deep beneath the surface and may harbour evidence of life from our distant past. But as yet, this continent’s secrets remain teasingly elusive.
Ice cores plumbed out of the 800,000-year-old ice have told a story of their own – the impact of mankind on Earth and climate change. Century-old equipment was used in the discovery of a hole in the ozone – earth’s own flesh wound, which may yet scar over.
To travel to the moon from the base would only take three days. Far less than the three weeks it takes to fly from London to Hobart, sail by icebreaker across the Southern Ocean, battle high seas, whales and the ice pack before finally reaching a 60,000-strong rookery and football stadium’s worth of Adélie penguins. The last leg of the journey is a five-hour flight inland in a Twin Otter over the Great White Silence, a blank white canvas.
What research is currently ongoing?
BH / In view of its isolation, complete darkness for three months, altitude (with associated hypoxia) and crew size, Concordia is believed to be one of the closest environments to space on earth, a ‘spaceflight analogue’. ESA hope that research conducted at Concordia will advance our understanding of the likely exposures placed astronauts during long haul spaceflight, as well as having clinically transferable applications.
This year we have seven experiments running: an interesting mix of extreme physiology, psychology and microbiology. Each year most of the projects change, with a few running over multiple years.
Examples include blood pressure regulation, adaptation to hypoxia, cognitive performance and psychological status monitoring. In practice, that means regular blood tests, saliva and hair samples, pupillary reflex measurements, downloading data from activity watches, 24hr ECG and blood pressure machines, distributing questionnaires, encouraging the crew to complete video diaries and cognition batteries. The majority of data analysis is performed back in Europe but it is still our responsibility to transfer data, prepare samples and perform some analysis here in the lab. In general we are extremely well supported and guided through these tasks by ESA and the experimental leads back in Europe.
Without doubt the main challenge is not the collection and processing of the data but maintaining crew enthusiasm and involvement in the projects. All crew including the doctors are potential subjects and we have to fit the research around their own demanding roles on the base. It is not always an easy task to maintain their motivation. Communication can be difficult as English is often their second language. Subjects can also withdraw from the experiments at any time and do not receive any incentives for taking part, so it is important to be flexible and accommodating.
What was the summer like?
BH / During the summer months we reached a maximum of 80 crew with approximately 150 personnel rotating through in total. Everyone shared a room with an extended ‘summer camp’ a short walk from base to accommodate the extra personnel. Flights with food and equipment arrived on more or less a weekly basis by Twin Otter and Basler planes. The majority of freight (and our personal kit for the winter) arrived on an overland traverse that travelled 1300km from the coast.
There were opportunities to sample snow miles from base in untouched wilderness, release weather balloons and even drill your own ice cores. We played sport (at -30°C with oxygen saturations around 90%) including basketball, volleyball and rugby. Christmas Dinner was escargot and a 24-hour daylight party.
How about when winter sets in?
AK / You stop living and start surviving. Temperatures plummet and in May the sun sets for the last time. A curtain of blackness falls, leaving you to endure three months of 24-hour darkness, broken only by the twinkling lights of the Aurora Australis. Spinning uncontrollably through the world’s time zones, leaving you gasping as you wake from unforgiving, hypoxia-euphoric vivid dreams. The cold and isolation begin to seep in and your mind begins to stretch uncomfortably, as your senses become blunted by the sensory deprivation.
Once you enter the Antarctic winter, you begin a personal journey of discovery. You will learn a lot about yourself. You cannot turn back or go home. Once that last plane departs, there is only one way up, you have to summit and there is no quitting, only crying along the way.
Living and over-wintering as the only British national among a team of 13 Europeans in such an environment is not easy. It can be likened to living in one of the Old West frontier towns – a continual sense of not knowing who is going to shoot at whom next or why. As a team, we ate, slept, exercised, conducted science and survived alone frozen into the landscape in close proximity. We all survived.
It is one of the world’s only psychological marathons and one of the Earth’s greatest, most magnificent and most peculiar journeys. Watching people around you unfold and unzip at the seams is an interesting but potentially unforgiving pastime. Tourists are so often bedazzled by Antarctica and the public impressed by those who have been there. It certainly is special. However, all in all, you can’t say you have ‘been’ to Antarctica if you have just flown in to work for a few weeks or been on a cruise during the breezy summertime.
Really, you can never say you actually know Antarctica until you have wintered there. And not just anywhere – a winter on a Sub-Antarctic island such as South Georgia, Antarctica’s coast or peninsula is nothing like a winter in the interior. And at least we had wifi, unlike the broken radios of Shackleton’s day. For sure, people aren’t made of the same grit and stuff these days. If you want to really experience something – do it properly. Challenge yourself and mankind. What have you got to lose? In Antarctica, only a few fingers or toes.
Getting there / Alex travelled from London to Tasmania and then by ice breaker to Antarctica. Beth flew to Christchurch, New Zealand followed by a Hercules plane to Mario Zuchelli Sation. The final leg was by a Basilar or Twin Otter aircraft to the station. Most crew return via the French station DDU and take a 5-20 day voyage back by the boat ‘Astrolabe’ to Hobart.
BH’s Pre-departure Training /
- Introductory meeting at European Astronaut Centre, Cologne: Meet the ESA team and experimental leads of the protocols selected for your year;
- Chamonix Mountain Medicine Course;
- Institut Polare Francaise (IPEV) Meeting, Brest, France: Introduction to IPEV and life on a polar base;
- ESA Human Behaviour and Performance Training and baseline data collection, European Astronaut Centre;
- Training with experimental leads.
- End of April: Application Deadline
- June: Interviews
- September: ESA Initial Briefing Meeting
- September to October: Training
- Mid-November (latest early January): Departure
- November to December the following year: Return
Requirements / To apply for the position you must hold a passport of a member country of ESA, a medical qualification, speak English and have an interest in research. Beth is the fourth UK national and first female to overwinter for ESA here.
Halley Station Collaboration / This year marks an exciting development as ESA has just signed an agreement with the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) to perform some of the experiments there. At present there is no research MD position –the BAS doctor currently performs the experiments in conjunction with an ESA representative.
Beth Healey is currently working at Concordia Station. She can be contacted at email@example.com and you can follow her progress on Chronicles From Concordia blog or on Twitter: @bethahealey @esaoperations @esa.
Alex Kumar has since worked in different space analogue environments and constructed the ‘White Mars’ research protocol for Sir Ranulph Fiennes. He now works internationally for different organisations and humanitarian agencies, conducts global health research, enjoys photography and television work. Alex’s TED talk ‘Malaria to Mars’ can be found on Youtube and he can be contacted via his website or @dralexkumar.
Photos: Alex Kumar / Beth Healey / L. Moggio / ESA / IPEV / PNRA