Wednesday, 26 January 2011

A Vacation at the Coast

We don?t go. It?s nothing to do with the plan we made yesterday,
visibility is too low to land at DC. Everybody is making optimistic
noises about tomorrow but I don?t believe it, I think I?m stuck here
for the week. I can?t begin to count the number of ways this is going
to cause trouble. But it is entirely out of my control and it?s no
different to the experience of doctors everywhere who travel on
transfers. You?re highest priority on the way there, and the lowest
on the way back. It?s just that with the distances here the problems
are magnified.
I?d email Nathalie, but she?ll be flying for 2-3 days.So I mooch around the base and go for a couple of walks. I?ve noticed
there is a huge, ship-sinker of an iceberg in the bay, drifting in and
out by several miles with the flow of the tides. Last night it was
right here where it is now, but first thing this morning it was way
out past the headland. I wonder how long it takes to make a break out
into the ocean currents and away from here.The snow is all gone at sea
level; and up over in Tethys bay there is
a beach with a few small dark sandy patches; the strong sun has
warmed the sand despite the cold air and I spend a very enjoyable
afternoon relaxing by myself by the crisp blue water. There is a
current circulating anticlockwise here, and circles of floating flat
ice, 5-10 metres in diameter drift past. On the other side of the
bay, between two sheer cliffs, the glacier headwall our plane taxied
up so close to last time now meets the water?s edge and occasionally
makes ominous booming noises, although I never see any ice falling off
into the water. The whole mountainous basin sparkles, white and deep
blue in the sunshine.
There are two adele penguins wandering around on the beach. I think
it might be the same pair I saw the last time I was here, because
their relationship is the same. One is very active, inquisitive and
busy. The other is slower moving, would prefer to waddle slower and
take it easy. It reluctantly lets itself get chivvied along by the
busy one. They are fun to watch, and over time I realize that the
busy one has a particular body language it uses when it want to
encourage it?s partner along. It?s recognizable because the half
turned away shoulders, the squawks pitched quieter so not to annoy,
the distance from the partner just right to encourage the other to
catch up, not so far away it gives up, is so remarkably similar to
that I see in humans. Occasionally the busy one strays too far ahead
and has to double back and start again as the other stops, giving up.
This busy penguin just exudes patience bordering on frustration! But
it does work and the reticent one comes following behind, the pair
making their way towards me and towards the shore. I get a five
minute close inspection by Busy, head bobbing furiously and swiveling
side to side only a metre away from me, while Shy keeps a couple of
metres back watching more in stillness. Eventually Busy comes up with
a new plan and I am forgotten. It leads Shy down to the waters edge
for a swim and several times the pair comically miss-time their flop
into the water only to end up on their bellies on the sand, as the
waves drain back too fast. But after four or five attempts they have
waded into the water deep enough to catch the wave and, I catch my
breath as I see how fast they dart away in the water. Such speed!
The sand in the water is light coloured and several times I catch a
flash of black as they zoom past, cruising in the warmer shallow
water. Every time they come up for air they caw so I can hear them
around all afternoon. The company is nice. Later, as I walk around the
bay closer to the circulating fragments of ice, one of the penguins drifts
past on one, cleaning itself in the sun.
I saw a couple of seals pop up for air earlier, and when I see a dark
shape in the shallow water I remember what one of the helicopter
pilots told me earlier, that the seals like to lie in the shallow
water too, sunbathing, so still they are mistaken for rocks until they
move. This smooth shape looks like could be moving a bit, so I sit
down to watch, thinking it might possibly be a seal. After a while of
uncertainty I remember that I have my glasses in my camera bag. I
put them on and I realize that this supposed rock I have been watching
so closely for signs of life for ten minutes or so is, in fact, a
rock. Time to go back, I think.
And when I get back I get the happy news. I am getting a five day
vacation at MZS, courtesy of PNRA and Ken Borac aviation company.
Actually it occurs to me that 1) my last full day off was Christmas
day and that many days recently I?ve worked 7 am round to 1 am as we get
the project going, so I?ve probably earned this break and 2) five days
off here has without doubt got a lot more potential than five days off
in Concordia.
Happy times.

Vacation over.
After two days I get an email account, and it's great to be connected
again. It's been a long time since I had no internet, no phone, no
email and no way to leave under my own steam and I have to say I found
it really uncomfartable.
The crew of MZS are incredibly welcoming and friendly. At meal times
the Canadians are often there, but if not I'm never alone - always
there is someone willing to make the effort to chat in English. I
really find it a bit humbling.
And the crew find me tihings to do. Claudio the meteorolist takes me
up to see the work he does; every day he launches a helium filled
balloon with a device dangling underneath it the records the air
temperature, gas mix, and by GPS the wind speed. It's climate change
research basically. Rick, the technical manager gets me helping out
the crew with installing new power cables, whcih is a laugh when you
don't speak the language! The base buzzes with activity. The two
helicopters go off every day carrying the two Lauras as they hunt for
microbial life here, and the guys hunting for meteorites. Antarctica
doesn't get especially many meteorites, but they sure are more visible
in the snow, so it's a great hunting ground for them.
I get time to walk, which is bliss all by itself, and take loads of
photographs. On the 24th Shaun, the Canadian plane mechanic and I take
a hike up past enigma lake, to have a look at the glaciers coming down
from Mt Abbott, the big peak dominating the skyline.
When we get back I get the news that we'll be able to fly up to DC
tomorrow and I do feel a twinge of disappointment. This place is so
beautiful and fun, and the people so friendly that I'm sad to leave.
But, well, isn't that how all the best holidays end?
The twin otter will fly to McMurdo tomorrow, and then come back to
drop off some cargo and then pick me up to go to DC. Which means I
don't leave until 2.30pm, and that means I can spend the morning on
the Skua! So chuffed.The Skua is the small, maybe ten metre long, boat that MZ keeps. It
looks for all the world like a minature trawler, with some heavy
looking lifting gear on the back. It's been craned out of the water
since I arrived because big waves crash it against it's mooring and,
being aluminium hulled, it's can't take too much of that. It's crewed
by Giuseppe, Enrico and David, who are all very fun, but only David
really speaks any English. The boat can only go a few miles for
safety, as they don't have another to make a rescue should anything go
wrong. So we do some experiments - chlorophyll measuring in several
areas near the base, and then for another project they lower a small
basket and net into the water to dredge the bottom for sponges. And
It's remarkable, the variety of life they bring up! Scallops,
starfish, oyster like things called adamussio (I think), sea worms
almost a metre long, several little fish, crabs looking like spiders -
really there was a huge variety. I never would have believed so many
things would live in such cold water. We pick out the sponges and
return the rest to the water. The boat is designed to cope with ice,
and so it's flat bottomed. Which means it bobs like a cork in tiny
waves. I would not like to be out on a rough day without some good
strong anti sickness drugs!
All too soon it's time to go back and I'm so sad as we motor slowly
back to the mooring. Terra Nova bay, it's a wonderful place.
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Sunday, 23 January 2011

MZS again


It was a two hour flight to Terra Nova. We didn?t land on the ice
this time, but a new landing strip that?s been built from snow on the
side of a hill, up in the foothills of the mountain range. And i mean
built, there is a pisten bully here, just like those in ski resolts,
and it's been used to make a shelf out of snow on the side of the hill
that we can land on. The Canadians have some work to do, to guy their
plane out. It can be seriously windy up here.

I?m driven down an extremely steep dirt track by Rick, the Italian
technical manager in a land rover. The track has been cut roughly
out of the face of a steep scree and gravel covered hill, into tethys
bay and has a precipitous drop to one side, and upslope of very loose
rocks above us. Most days there are new rocks, anything up to several
tonnes, on the road that need cleared but no-one has ever been near
them when they come down. It's usually the winds overnight that
dislodge them. In Tethys bay, the steep sided bowl that held the old
ice sheet landing strip we took off from five weeks ago, the ice has
completely melted and the bay now looks transformed, with the cliffs
and glaciers now sliding into clear, deep, still, and and very bright
blue sea.

I didn?t really have time to notice in McMurdo, but here I start to
notice the lovely thick; soupy quality of the air. I can?t resist
checking my sats ? 98%! My brain might actually work properly here!
It?s warm too, I?m just in a t-shirt and thin wind jacket. I
commented how nice it was to be in plus temperatures, but apparently
it?s still 2 centigrade below. I suppose living in -40 C has changed
my perspective a little!
It?s lovely to be by the sea and after dinner I take a stroll over
rocks, over uneven surfaces, grippy surfaces, sand, shingle, and down
to the sea shore, where I let my feet get wet. Yup, still cold. Never
before have I been so pleased by varying textures underfoot. What a
novelty it all is after 6 weeks on the ice at Concordia!
But, so pleasant as it is, I?m keen to get back to the base to keep
up the momentum with the research now it?s really underway, and my
thoughts are full of the flight up tomorrow and what I can get done

Logistics again.
The plan was to fly to DC (Dome C - a vast region but the only thing
in it is Concordia and it?s a bit quicker to say) where they would
drop me off and pick up a full planeful of people to fly to DDU
(Dumont D?Urville, France?s big coastal station and our supply point):
But the weather is iffy for DDU for the next few days. The pilots
point out that they are obliged to take a five day break in the next
few days, and if DDU is closed for three days this would be the most
logical time to take it off. The upshot, I realize with some horror,
is that I?m going to be stuck at MZS for five days.
ESA. Is going. To kill me.

I stand by our decision though - This Is Antarctica as we are saying
more and more frequently as we adjust to this continental sized
logistical nightmare. Between Andrea and I it was sensible for me to
go. I have no surgical skills and for me to be the sole doctor on the
base would be risky. The epidemiology here is mainly trauma and
apparently poisoning too, because everyone is screened for major
medical problems before they come. And while he could manage a case
of poisoning as well as it?s possible to with some good specialist
advice from Europe, no amount of phone advice is going to help me
close a lacerated blood vessel should someone have a nasty accident.
So knowing that there is always the potential for a delay in getting
back, I packed for three days, just in case.

In the end a compromise is struck with the pilots ? we?ll go tomorrow
and they get their rest afterwards. But it depends on there being
good weather to land at DDU after taking me to DC. Fingers crossed.

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Eric and Dustin, the Canadian guys who pilot the twin otter plane that
supplies our base, fly up from MZS (Mario Zuchelli Station, Terra Nova
Bay) to evacuate our patient to McMurdo base. This isn?t like the
last time though, our patient is stable and we can take our time.I take the medevac this time. It?s just me and the patient in the back
of the plane, with two large drums of emergency avaiation fuel
strapped down in front of us. On the right the row of seats have
their backs folded down and the stretcher gets strapped on top of
them; One seat remains up on the right for me to sit beside him.
They journey is straightforward. On his oxygen the guy is fine, I
check his obs and the pressure in the O2 cylinder every half hour to
hour. There?s plenty for the four hour flight.It reminds me of the flight I had in the search and rescue helicopter
in Stornoway last April, and I?m very glad I had that experience.
Especially the chat I had with the winchman/paramedic of the crew, it
gave me some idea of what to expect in the twin otter, what can and
cannot practically be done in the back of a noisy aircraft. The
dimensions inside are similar; the twin otter is probably slightly
thinner and longer but it?s not much different . My headset is
plugged in to one of the periodic jacks in the compartment?s sides and
I have to move the plug if I want to move around, My voice sounds
weird in the headset just like it did that time, too. I have to say
now I?m very grateful to the Stornoway crew for that trip. If anyone
in Stornoway is reading this, please could you pass on my thanks to
those guys.Dustin, the co-pilot, eased himself through the open cockpit entrance
into the back and puts on a kettle. While I get a salbutamol
nebuliser going for the patient he makes us all chicken noodle soup
using one of the fuel drums as a worktop. It?s the first homely food
I?ve had in almost two months and I promise you I?m going to remember
it for a very long time. Our patient drops his sats to 75% as he
tucks into his cup but he's OK.I suddenly feel like that the air is more pleasant than it has been in
ages; But were still flying at 14000 feet. Then I realize - the
humidity is much higher, and that's making breathing more comfortable.
We must be nearing the coast. I look out and see that below us is a
carpet not of snow but of thick cloud; It?s lovely to breath so much
better.We get to McMurdo having flown the last part under the cloud layer and
above the transantarctic mountain chain. The peaks get up to 3,500m
under our flight path. There are high glaciers with only the highest,
thin rocky ridges of the mountain summits protruding shallowly through
the ice, forming narrow spines in 3 or four pointed star shapes ,
and then, right beside these buried  peaks exist deep, deep valleys, some
of them entirely without ice.  it?s a remarkable sight.
We wheel left and there below us are the buildings of McMurdo?s
airfield, an isolated huddle of buildings in the middle of a vast
plain of sea ice, that extends from the foot of the abruptly ending
massif. On the other side of the ice shelf we can see Mount Erebus,
the worlds most southern volcano. And, little more than a speck in the
distance McMurdo, another isolated huddle of buildings in this vastness.
We land very smoothly. This is a well kept, busy landing strip very
different from the bumpy, lurching runway of our own less frequented
base. There are four USAF Hercules lined up neatly at the side of the
landing strip, and a couple of twin otters run by the Ken Borac
company that supplies us. The runway seems to have moved further away
from the base since the last time I was here. I know the Australian
base has had problems with early thawing of their strip, and I wonder
if the same has happened here and that they?ve had to move the
airfield out to safer ice. Apparently now it?s an hour?s journey
across the ice shelf to the base, it was probably fifteen minutes when
I was here before.
Anyway; we?re not going into the base this time. When we land we hand
over our charge, who bounces out of the plane and into the waiting
ambulance looking much better now he?s down and breathing in a
full-fat atmosphere. I quickly hand over to the paramedic. They
don?t hang around, apparently they have three Medevacs from various
bases coming in today.While Eric and Dustin refuel the plane I get twenty minutes internet
time, probably the last time for 2011, in one of the cabins.We get airborne again quite quickly, this time making for MZS where
these guys are based. We fly over McMurdo, past the smoking Mount
Erebus ? apparently there is a webcam set up to view the pool of lava
inside it?s cone; over the huts that Scott and Shackleton built on
their joint expedition long before they each met their separate fates
down here; and over the the ice channel cut by US ships supplying
McMurdo. We see the small vessel that patrols up and down the channel
continuously to keep it open, and a bigger vessel; a supply ship
making?s way down this strange icy canal.
Then another left turn out over the edge of the ice sheet. We fly over
thin fragmented pack ice, and big icebergs calved from glaciers, as we
make for Terra Nova bay above a calm, glistening Southern Ocean. We 
chat all the way, about nothing very much, to Mario Zucchelli
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Saturday, 22 January 2011

My first chest x-ray

Another sick person; another likely pneumonia: He?s got a fever,
coughing up green spit and has a white count of 20. ( He was advised,
not by anyone European, to take diamox as prophylaxis against acute
mountain sickness and he had a reaction to their formulation, so was
given second line dexamethasone 4mg bd instead. But logistical delays
meant he was on it for five days waiting to come up to altitude. He
started coughing the day after he stopped the dex, funnily enough)
His sats are low, his respiratory rate and his heart rate are up but
he?s actually pretty well with it. But mindful that our last HAPE
/ pneumonia   patient deteriorated shockingly rapidly and in the space of
36 hours  ended up with oxygen saturations of 56%, we are being
very careful with this guy.
The lack of atmospheric pressure means our blood carries less oxygen -
both dissolved in the blood and attached to the haemogmobin molecules.
At sea level, about 97% of our haemoglobin molecules will pick up a
molecule of oxygen at the lungs and carry it to supply our body?s
cells (it?s what we refer to as oxygen saturation, or sats, measured
by a photospectrometer in a clip that goes on a fingertip). But at
altitude the air is thinner and although O2 is still present in the
same proportion, there is numerically less, and so it is harder for
our blood to get fully saturated. I?ve found that stepping off the
plane from sea level we will typically have sats of 80 to 85 % and so
we all feel rough because of the lack of oxygen. Headaches, poor
sleep and nausea are almost universal and all recover fairly quickly
as we acclimatize and our sats rise. Lots of people, including me,
have cheyne-stokes breathing for a while. That's due to the
physiology of the situation, not imminent departure.
I?ve been told, but I?m not convinced, that 2,3 DPG is the sole
cause for improvement. 2,3 DPG has a shift effect on the dissociation
curve. But as both sats rise, and unloading must improve as symptoms
get better, it seems to me the curve must change it?s shape and spread
out rather than just shift.
But high altitude pulmonary oedema (HAPE) is something else. It?s the
second time I?ve seen it, and it seriously needs to be respected.
Our capilliaries are slightly leaky, we know this, and our bodies have
ways of dealing with the fluid that leaks out and returns it to the
main circulation. Reduce the atmospheric
pressure and it seems the resulting reduction in available oxygen causes
the blood pressure in the lung's circulation to rise. In some people
fluid will leak out and coat the lungs'
surfaces, reducing the movement of oxygen into the blood. This is
HAPE. Patients get severely hypoxic and it can be life threatening.
The treatment is simply to get down to a lower altitude, i.e. a higher
atmospheric pressure. Other things help. Inhaled oxygen from a
cylinder, salbutamol, diamox and nifepidine
all help. If you can't get them down and these measures don't work we
have a pressurised bag we can put them in.
But there?s more to it. Infection generally causes
capilliaries to become more leaky, to let white blood cells out to
fight the invaders; and inevitably therefore anyone with a lung
infection is seriously at risk of HAPE as they are more likely to leak
fluid. But the converse is also true, standing fluid in the lung is an
infection risk and so HAPE can lead to pneumonia. In our first
patient a few weeks ago, pneumonia, mild and not troubling at sea
level led to a life threatening situation within 36 hours at altitude.
We got him down rapidly and he stepped off the plane at sea level
much better. This time, this guy is not so badly affected, and it?s
harder to say which came first; It could have been either.
I do my first ever chest X ray, shown how to do it by the base doctor
Andrea and Antonio the nurse; Compared to a hospital film it?s very
poor quality, the costophrenic angles are cut off, its rotated and
there are scratches all over the film from my terrible development
technique. But it?s enough; there is patchy consolidation in the
left midzone confirming the diagnosis; We take a digital photo of it
so we can alter the contrast and thank goodness we did, I recognize
subtle but unmistakable fattening of the left hilum revealing batwing
pulmonary oedema. I have to admit, I?m quite proud of it.
So on the oxygen, antibiotics, diamox, salbutamol and nifepidine he
goes and by morning all his numbers are going the right way, he has a
better colour, the breath sounds are louder throughout his chest, and
we?re satisfied he?s getting better. It takes 48 hours for
antibiotics to really have an effect and he?s getting better too fast
for that, the HAPE is a good catch we might have empirically treated
but wouldn?t have diagnosed without the chest x-ray.
Great. Now what do we do?
If it?s pneumonia, treating the infection could resolve the HAPE and
he could stay at altitude. If it's HAPE alone, given time and a little oxygen,
and he might acclimatise.  He seems to be stable anyway. Shall we
keep him and see if it works? Absolutely not. Firstly, we?ve got
good weather, a plane nearby and the opportunity. What if we let the
chance slip and then in two days time he deteriorates? There?s no ICU
here, no opportunity for higher level care if he deteriorates.
Patients that even the most remote rural hospital would be happy to
keep and treat pose a serious risk out here. Remember even the
nearest high dependency unit even is ten solid hours of flying away.
So we have an exceptionally low threshold for choosing to transfer
unwell people out. Why risk anything? He can come back and do his
research another time.
And there?s another thing, something that I promise you we do
not allow to alter our care one bit, but is nevertheless on our minds.
He?s using up our supplies. We have a store of antibiotics, oxygen,
and all the other acute treatments a hospital needs, predicted to be
enough for the winter. But so close to the winter, it?s not so easy
to get us up replacements from Australia. If he sits here taking a
week to recover he will seriously eat into our supplies. So down
he?ll go. We didn?t even hesitate over the decision. Handily he?s a
US citizen, and McMurdo base email back saying they want him, without
even a debate.

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Friday, 21 January 2011

We broke my boss


So Nathalie has been here a couple of weeks getting my project off the
ground. And on Saturday night she went to the party in the summer
camp and made the mistake of staying resolutely sober. So when she
slipped on some melted snow and twisted her ankle she was nowhere
nearly relaxed as someone ought to be on a Saturday night and she
managed to sustain a minor ankle fracture. We got her onto an
American plane back to civilization as she was due to travel by L?
Astrolabe in four days time; but seven days with a lower limb cast on
in the southern ocean would be near impossible to manage.
Technically a medical transfer from McMurdo to CHC (Christchurch),
The American flight crew found out she?s a military doctor (I might
have let it slip out) and they pulled out all the stops for her.
Thanks you guys. I have to say, there are a few long faces here since
you left, Nat.

For me though it should be OK, I?m now familiar with all the equipment
I?ll be using and the structure of the experiments. There are still
bits and bobs to figure out, like how on earth to use the squat
centrifuge sitting on the middle of the worktop, but they should be OK.
I think we?re go. At last!

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Friday, 14 January 2011

ESA lab, The Third Floor, Quiet Building, Concordia base, Antarctica.

My lab is a wedge shape, as are most rooms in a round tower, and for
something this big in this station to belong to one person is pure
luxury! At the outer wall it?s 4.5 metres across, at the inner wall
it?s 1.8 metres across, and it?s about 5 metres long. And since my
experimental equipment arrived it is so stuffed full of gear there?s
hardly any space left. I have six computers; four laptops for the
experiments (), a PC and my own laptop, with one more PC still to
arrive! The reason for this is that conflicts between several
experimental programs meant I needed one laptop for each program! ( =
no redundancy, not good here in Antarctica). As I type this there is
brain monitoring gear scattered everywhere, along with blood sampling
kits, battery chargers, bottles of all sorts, a centrifuge, pipettes,
testing reagents, a small Christmas tree, boxes of distilled water, a
calendar with a picture of Carrbridge?s famous bridge in snow, sinks,
glass topped worktops, cables and folders scattered everywhere! . In
one corner there are aluminium and black polymer hard cases it was all
transported here in. The lab is new, clean, and until my gear arrived
it was very tidy! The walls, as everywhere in the base are well
finished metal panels, in here they are painted a beige colour.
Plenty light pours in the window. It?s bright airy, roomy and
unbelievable, to be honest! I love it!
My lab sits in the top floor of the quiet tower, in between the radio
room and the station office, and that?s a great place to be, as it?s
the organisational hub of the whole base. The technical hub, where
Michel Munoz, Fred Sergent and others run the maintenance of the base,
is at the ground floor of the noisy tower. Everyone passes this way
frequently, and there?s a coffee maker right outside my door, so I
have plenty visitors coming in to say hello. The station leaders buzz
back and forwards to the radio room and so I always know what is going
on. Up here are also seismology, meterorology, astronomy, and
glaciology labs with quiet activity and serious purpose going on at
all hours of the day.There are a few guys in the station office next door; the station
leader, one of the Italian technical managers, and Nicola ? who fixes
everything logistical, but I?ve no idea what his job title is. The
station leader, Giuseppe ? you know, I don?t know his surname - is
very practical, nice, Italian guy. He?s very measured, everything is
done by the rules and will run like clockwork under him, and I like
that. I think on a base surrounded by such danger and logistical
problems such as Antarctica suffers from, you couldn?t ask for a
better leader. Nothing ever seems to be a crisis, everything can be
solved. Opposite him in the room is Nicola LaNotte. An amazing guy,
he?s Italian, about five foot four and very thin, in his late fifties
I would guess, and an absolute livewire. He? s unbelievably fit, he
can certainly outpace me and everyone else I know on a 10K walk, and
is pretty strong too, throwing around 30kg boxes and making it look
like they were a fraction of the weight! I don?t know his job title
but he?s the key guy to speak to regarding logistics. If you have a
box in DDU and no-one else can find it, maybe he can help you! I wish
I had his energy. The third manager there is Andrea, in his thirties,
and another guy with boundless energy. He?s more of a technical fixer
on the base, he knows where everything is and what tools we have ? you
want your flag on the roof? Speak to Andrea and it?ll be up within an
hour or two!These guys are always buzzing backwards and forwards to the radio room
on the other side of my lab, as they sort out the day to day logistics
with the various aircraft around and the other bases with whom the
aircraft are shared, and from where our supplies come.In the radio room we have Rita, the Italian secretary for the base.
She hardly speaks English but is a fun bubbly person who everybody
likes. I know her best from her announcements over the tannoy that a
plane is nearing the base. She can say it in English and Italian, but
gets the French for ?it?s going to arrive? wrong every time, and
there?s Djamel in the astro lab always comes stomping round every time
shouting ?c?est ARRIVERA ! L?avion ARRIVERA dans vingt minutes!?
Poor Rita, she?s so busy laughing that she forgets what he says, and
so it happens again and again... Last time she announced it Djamel
did the French over the tannoy for her ? so actually for once there
were some French guys helping us to unload the plane! ;^) Often
Michel and I are the only blue suits there! (Did I tell you that
the Italians and the French staff are equipped by their respective
Antarctic expeditionary offices? The result is that the Italians are
red from head to toe in their outdoor suits and the French are in
blue. Because I?m employed by IPEV I have blue gear.)Paulo is our IT guy and over the winter he?ll be operating the radio
room singlehandedly. He?s Italian, got long hair, scraggy beard, and
is, of a very likeable winterover crew, one of the most likeable.
Very laid back, smokes like a chimney, and a Hitchhiker?s Guide to the
Galaxy fanatic. He was meant to be on last year?s overwinter crew,
but broke his leg just before departure in a motorbike fall. Over the
last week he and I have had to pull some very late nights ? me because
of my experiments, he because whenever a plane is flying either to or
from the base, the radio has to be manned permanently the whole time
it?s in the air for safety. It?s a boring job and he would come to
the door to see whatever set-up or monitoring I was doing, and he?s
taken some great photos of everyone who has had brain monitoring
electrodes on.Djamel works  in the Astroconcordia lab, also on the third floor. He is one  
of the winter crew, from Morocco who moved to France. He speaks
English, French and Italian fluently which is incredibly handy. He
lives a permanent semi-nightshift so he can be seeing the sky when the
sun is lowest. There's the seismology guys, Maxim and Pascal. A
couple of weeks ago they came through very excitedly, insisting I come
through to their lab. Their equipment was showing a sizeable earth
quake in process. A day or two later we heard that Christchurch in
New Zealand had been hit by aftershocks and we speculated that perhaps
that was what we had seen. I?ve been out in the past to help them dig
out their equipment, and tomorrow they are going to be taken by plane
very far away to set up a new monitoring station. I had hoped to go
along to help, but unfortunately I?ve go too much on here.Ilann, Domenico, both scientists who will be wintering over ?
there?ll be plenty opportunity to tell you about them another time.
In the Astronomy lab there is Richard Douet, a French man who really
feels half Scottish ? there?s Gunns in his family ? and he brought a
saltire to the base. Delphine, who I don?t know at all, and I want to
remember Jean Pierre, a chap who has been and gone in the time I?ve
been here. Really one of the nicest people I?ve ever met, and an
astronomer, he?s since been helping us work out the relative distance
from here to our home towns.Being so far from home definitely weighs on my mind a lot, as I?m sure
it does for everyone here. But it?s definitely a great crew to be with
and that really helps.
It turns out Kingussie is 17,080 kilometres away from here. Or
about 21,500 if you go round the other way.
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Thursday, 13 January 2011

It's such a hassle when the suncream freezes

Typed 6/1/11

I have some samples from last year?s ESA projects, blood samples
mostly, that are being kept in a tunnel a few hundred metres from the
base. At the surface the temperature might be -25 degrees centigrade,
but two metres down the snow is -50. The tunnel left over from the
EPICA drilling experiments is an ideal place to freeze these samples
and so there they sit, waiting for a plane to take them to DDU.

I had to go down to check all ten boxes were packed properly. It was
a nice sunny day and although cold as usual, there was no wind and I
could feel the sun?s rays warming my down suit as I walked to the
tunnel. But once inside the cold irresistibly sucked all that warmth
out as I worked through each box. My hat and neck fleece were thickly
coated in frost by the time I finished.

The tunnel?s ceiling is remarkable for the ice crystal growing on it,
delicate branched crystals that look just like a thick, white forest
of conical fir bushes growing downwards, around 30 centimetres long.
I took a few pictures but the contact with the metal body of my camera
numbed my gloved hands in minutes flat, and I ran out back into the
sun, yelping as the hot aches took over.

The sunshine felt so warm on my face I would have loved to sit on the
snow, lean back on the wall of snow beside the tunnel?s entrance and
soak it up for a while, but I quickly realised my face was cooking ?
you really miss the ozone layer, here, believe me. And that?s when I
discovered that my suncream had frozen, and there was nothing for it
but to layer up over my face and trudge back to the base. Ho hum.

Tomorrow my gear finally arrives. Well, half of it anyway.

I?ve got two projects to run, both funded by the European Space Agency
(ESA). One, the Long term Medical Survey, is designed directly by ESA
and is a fairly loosely defined project that involves weekly
questionnaires, frequent physical checks and, when the equipment
arrives, periodic monitoring of heart rate, ECG, temperature, oxygen
saturation, and respiratory rate. The questionnaires and checks have
been running for a few years, and the monitoring is new. I get the
feeling ESA is still in the process of finding out what is really
worth looking at. I?ll be piloting the physical monitoring equipment
and we?ll just have to see how we get on with it. It?s due to arrive
at the end of January.

The other project, NEUROPOLE, is a carefully put together amalgam of
several projects that were proposed to ESA by scientists in various
disciplines across Europe. It will answer some specific scientific
questions about how the challenges of isolation etc at Concordia
affect mood, cognition, sleep, and exercise tolerance, and how a
programme of exercise might help normalise all these factors. It?s
directly relevant to planning the Mars mission. It is a long way to
Mars and the small crew will live in confined and uncomfortable
conditions, coping with the unimaginable stresses of separation from
Earth, of physical dangers and discomfort never before experienced by
anyone, and the very genuine stress of prolonged boredom. But despite
this they will need to stay sharp and cohesive and that is a big
challenge to achieve. It is so far removed from the challenges that
humans were built, physically and psychologically, by nature to cope
with. We need to know what will happen, and how to help the crew
cope. There is such good evidence from medicine that exercise is good
at helping with all sorts of problems, such as coping with pressure,
depression, poor sleep, and so on that providing a good quality
exercise programme for the crew is a must, and NEUROPOLE?s central
design is around a programme of exercise that each crew member does,
and tests to see how they respond to it. The study is a bit
real-world and every crew member can do the same experiments. A
randomised controlled study it is not, but then, how could it ever be?

But back down to Earth; this is Antarctica, and this gear has been
designed and made in Europe and is being shipped to me via the
astrolabe to DDU (Dumond D?Urville station). One of the project
leaders, Natalie, is coming out to Concordia for three weeks, to help
me get the project started. She, and the equipment were due to arrive
today, but that?s been postponed to Friday now.

I?ve run out of other things to do. The parts of my research that I
can do are ticking over easily, I?ve got to the point that I?m
over-organised, and I?ve read all the papers that I brought I
really, really can?t wait for this stuff to arrive!

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Tuesday, 4 January 2011


I didn?t get much time off over new year. But that?s OK, it was
interesting stuff. Saturday and Sunday were both days off for the
crew and there was a big party on hogmanay, but issues came up I had
to deal with.
The shower water developed a subtle metallic or ammonia kind of smell,
and so I spent hogmanay running analyses on it. Because the base is
built on snow and ice you might think we would be rich in water, but
unfortunately it?s not the case. There is a huge energy cost in just
taking ice at zero degrees and melting it to water at zero degrees,
and we need to raise it?s temperature from -25 (or -80 in winter) to
plus 20, as well as melting it. And the fuel to do that has to be
dragged for 1000km from Dumond D?Urville by traverse. So water is
seriously expensive here.
We conserve by being careful ? and believe me for the first time in my
life I am taking energy conservation genuinely seriously. There?s
nothing like the prospect of 9 months of total isolation to make you
think you have to look after the fuel store. Short showers, taps off,
it?s a ritual.
And we conserve by recycling. Step in the European Space Agency yet
again. Of course the space station has to recycle water and so will a
mission to Mars. Here we have the luxury of not having to recycle all
water, but just that of showers, washing machines, cooking and
washing. So ESA has provided a ?grey water treatment unit.? It
consists of a UV irradiation system, a nanofiltration system, and a
reverse osmosis method that together cleans the water to go back into
use for washing and showering, etc. The water is drinkable, but we
don?t. We melt water for drinking and cooking. Nice to have a dual
supply, just in case.
Someone has to check periodically that the grey water unit is running
properly, by analysing the water it produces for all the sorts of
things the system is designed to extract. Whether because it?s
originally an ESA design, or perhaps because they just want someone
they know will be handy with a Gilsen and a testing kit, but anyway,
that person is me. So once a week I go down to the grey water
treatment unit and climb and twist and balance and push through a
tangle of tubing, pipes, tanks and cylinders to get samples from
various steps of the process. And then I spend a couple of hours in
the lab pipetting samples in to tubes for photospectrometry and various
other tests.
The ammonia was at the upper limit of acceptable, and everything else
checked out normally. We test for organisms by measuring ATP and that
was much less than the drinking water has. So the smell is just a bit
of higher than normal ammonia levels, but still very safe.
And so Sunday I thought, it?s our official day off, I can relax,
surely. Until word gets to me that there is a mild outbreak of
diarrhoea on the base. And so I spent my morning in meetings with the
base doctor, the station leader, senior crew and the chef, deciding
what to do about it. One thing was for sure, it wasn?t serious.
Everyone suffering was still up and about.
But was it food, or was it viral? The base doctor thought food, I
insisted we couldn?t rule out viral. We couldn?t know yet and so we
had to decide to put in place measures to address both possibilities.
Cue the usual stern lectures about hand washing, we had to remove all
shared food like the cheeseboards and bread, a water melting unit we
had isolated for the festivities so we could use it as an outdoor spa
had to be closed. I can?t tell you how much I felt like scrooge
insisting on all these things, but well, it?s what you?ve got to do.
(And as the outbreak continued to develop in new people day after day,
and then sprang up in DDU a few days later I felt a bit vindicated.)
But, I really don?t mind the time I?m putting in. In fact I?m loving
the variety of the job, and that you work when you have to and you
can?t predict what?s coming next. But there?s something else too. If
you websearch up some images of Concordia base you?ll see that from
one of the towers the French, Italian and EU flags fly. Well, because
I?m here for the year they?ve let me put up a Scottish flag too. I
brought one that, it turns out is the same size as the Italian and
French, and it just represents me! I?m so proud of this, and it gives
me a lot to live up to. Every time I see it or think about it, it?s a
spur to work more, harder, better.
So I worked through the new year proud to be a member of this team,
public health advisor, water engineer, doctor, playing my part to
keep this base a safe place. Of course, there might have been a
couple of shandies along the way too, it?s not all work y?know...
Happy new year folks, best wishes to you all.

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