January 27, 2011
With another frigid winter, complete with a snowstorm dumping on D.C. this week, I’m trying to remind myself that there are far worse places for someone like me who can’t stand the cold. Take the South Pole, where winter temperatures can reach more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit below zero. Even summer rarely sees temperatures in positive numbers. Strong winds blow across the plateau, and the night lasts for six months. Captain Robert Scott, who died in his attempt to reach the South Pole, wrote in 1912: “Great God! this is an awful place and terrible enough for us to have laboured to it without the reward of priority.”
But a team of scientists and support personnel now lives at the South Pole around the year, weathering even the depths of the polar winter. What advice might they give about surviving life in such a cold and barren place?
1) Be prepared: Everyone who leaves the McMurdo Research Station and heads out to somewhere else on Antarctica, like the South Pole, must first complete the “Happy Camper” training course. Trainees spend two days and a night out on the ice learning about potential threats, such as frostbite and hypothermia, and how to protect themselves by building things like wind walls and survival trenches. Having the right gear helps, but it’s no use without knowing what to do with it.
2) Dress warmly: Layers, layers and more layers. When writer Richard Panek visited scientists studying dark energy at the South Pole, he described them wearing “thermal underwear and outerwear, with fleece, flannel, double gloves, double socks, padded overalls and puffy red parkas, mummifying themselves until they look like twin Michelin Men.”
3) Don’t get wet: Water is a better conductor of heat than air is, so if a person falls into water, even relatively warm water, they are at risk of developing hypothermia—when the body’s core temperature falls below 95 degrees—if they don’t get out and get warm and dry quickly. At least the South Pole is far away from any liquid bodies of water.
4) Stay hydrated: Antarctica is a desert; low humidity and high winds sap the moisture out of a person. Chapped skin is common. But more importantly, dehydration can contribute to hypothermia and frostbite.
5) Eat well: Even with all those layers or just staying indoors, keeping warm requires more energy than normal. Residents at the South Pole Station eat the same kinds of food they eat at home (they even have a hydroponic garden for fresh veggies), but outdoor snacks have to be something that can be eaten frozen. One resident wrote:
When I first arrived in Antarctica, I was surprised that whenever any one went out for a trip—a few hours or all day—they only ever took chocolate bars to eat. I was most unimpressed with how unhealthy this was, so when I went on my first trip I made some wholesome and nutritious sandwiches (tuna and mayonnaise on wholemeal bread—I remember it well).
Come lunch time, my companion got out his chocolate bar and proceeded to eat it, I got out my sandwiches and after 5 minutes of sucking a frozen corner gave up and resorted to chocolate. Thankfully my companion didn’t ROFL, but I didn’t bother with my healthy option again!
6) Mark your path: In the dark and blinding winds, it’s possible to lose your way, even if your way is relatively short. At the South Pole, paths from research facilities to the base station where everyone lives are marked with lines of flags on poles.
7) Have a warm place to stay: A tent or igloo will do in a pinch, but as of 2008, South Pole residents make their home in a modern base station complete with private rooms, computers and televisions, even a gym with a basketball court.
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