Life in the Antarctic

Eoin MacDonald-Nethercott in the Epica tunnel

Dr Eoin MacDonald-Nethercott came to Wolfson in 2003 to study for the Graduate Course in Medicine, following an undergraduate degree in Psychology, with particular emphasis on perception and cognitive neuropsychology. Before undertaking his course at Wolfson, he had worked as a Nursing Auxiliary for those in the advanced stages of dementia, had been a skiing and snowboarding instructor for disabled people and regularly participated in adventure racing: a team event which is a combination of orienteering and triathlon. Recently, he was recruited to conduct a European Space Agency (ESA) experiment in Antarctica to see how people are affected by a long period of isolation in an extreme environment, in preparation for a future mission to Mars. He recorded his experiences in a diary.

1 March 2011

Figure in fog

"We’ve just come through a few days of fairly stormy weather. It wasn't a terrible storm. The wind blew at 50mph or so, the air temperature actually rose to -45 or so but wind-chill was -65. Thick cloud cover lowered visibility to around 20 metres or so and the pressure dropped. Snow fell and drifted, blocking our doors. I found that out the pressure had dropped only because I noticed I was even more breathless on exercise. Having existed under a very fierce, dry sun and such unchanging weather for three months now, the big change came as a relief to me because the humidity rose. But to those from the south, who are less familiar with this kind of weather, it wasn't a pleasant time."

20 March 2011

"It’s a quarter past midnight, and I’ve just climbed out of bed. In the last few days my tenuous grip on a decent wake-sleep cycle has just disintegrated. I have been sleeping at all sorts of random times.

Base at night

It turns out that the great irony of doing sleep research is that the researchers don’t get any. That’s true when you’re in Europe doing your research on students and working people living a normal regular life. When you’re in an Antarctic base with a bunch of astronomers, cosmologists, just plain nightowls on the one hand, and a technical crew that’s up bright and early for a respectable 8-6 working day on the other, any semblance of normality disintegrates.

I’ve been sleeping when I can, that’s all there is to it. Two hours here, four hours there, sometimes six or 10, I just try to make sure it sums to 16 every 48 hours. Nearer the weekend I get full nights, and it has been fine so far. I’m up whenever I need to be, making it to all the meals. But I’m at the end of four weeks of this, we work six days a week and I had to cook for the crew all last Sunday too. At last I’m disintegrating a bit."

25 April 2011

"Got up at 8.45am. I'm too groggy to chat, so I read yesterday’s newspaper until I have slugged back enough coffee to overcome the sleepiness. I decide to get on with repairing an EEG cap, which records electrical activity within the neurons of the brain. I'm not particularly keen to do it because I'll use two of the last three replacement leads I have. There aren’t any more supplies coming until November, so we have to be very careful with the resources we have."

5 May 2011

First day with no sun

"Today is the first day the sun didn't rise. There was a little uncertainty about when it would happen. I came out to take a photograph to mark the occasion but it's going to be an unusually gloomy, empty looking picture of the base."

21 June 2011

"We have been in darkness for a long time now. It’s seven weeks since the sun set but it is far from total darkness. For a couple of hours each day, there is a strong orange glow on the horizon to the north as the sun, eight degrees below the horizon, still sends us some colour, if not enough light to see by."

25 June 2011

"When your sleep deteriorates, so does your appetite. The chef is expressing frustration because the amount of food eaten each day varies hugely and unpredictably and he can't avoid wastage. However at the end of each cycle of data collection, each crew member comes for a checkup. I'm glad to say that, other than sleep disturbance and some small creeping weight loss in about half, there don’t seem to be any other problems. The mood remains genial."

3 July 2011

"However well-insulated I am in my suit, the cold creeps in more insidiously. We are all affected differently. Ilann, my colleague, has problems with the skin on the back of his hands splitting. For Paolo, it's his heels cracking. For me, it's pain from my gums and teeth. We get back inside and have a look at some films while sipping peppermint tea in the radio room. The warming tea feels good. The temperature and humidity is rising and the wind is gusting, all the ingredients of a northerly wind blowing up from the sea. However, the direction is coming from the south-west. We're puzzled. Oh well, it’s Antarctica and, anyway, I like the change. Variety, however it comes, is good for one's spirit."

18 July 2011

Aurora and Orion

"Sunday, and I head out for a walk. Life is feeling very good today. The latest cycle of experiments has finished and I get a two-week hiatus before Cycle Five begins. I don’t stop working. There are other other things to do but hey, I can sleep and get up in a normal routine. So I might be able to temporarily shake off the reputation for narcolepsy I have earned, quite reasonably, recently. And the change of work keeps things interesting too. I came here expecting to have to cope with boredom and a lack of stimuli, to ration the things like entertainments, gym time and movies to nurse myself through. But the truth is I haven’t had a moment of dullness since I got here. Maybe I’m lucky with the job I have and team we have this year. There’s more variety in my work here than in the hospitals at home. And there is no money, no shopping, no traffic, no commute, no mobile phones and no bills. Really, there’s a lot going for it! The very refreshing, pleasant contrast to my normal working life is that (a) I have time to have friends and (b) I work with the same people day in, day out. That is a really nice change."

11 August 2011

Base at night

"The sun would rise today after a 14-week absence. Everyone has been buzzing for a week as the day got closer and closer.

Andrea sorted the party, and I arranged a football match. We saw the sunrise from the roof of the noisy building so we could appreciate the view best, with a glass of mulled wine and some good music. Logistically, it was a bit of a difficult as you might expect. It’s still -60, and up there the wind is strong. The wine cooled so fast and the food treats were half frozen again as soon as you unwrapped them from the foil. But it was so worth it. It’s the sun! After weeks of tantalisingly more daylight and an increasingly large orange focus on the horizon, the sun showed a fraction of itself above the horizon and sent us direct, strong rays."

Pictures and text © IPEV-ENEA