Sunday, 20 March 2011

Six Weeks In

It?s 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.
Missed dinner tonight, I know I?m going to get some good natured abuse
for this.
As I walk throught the base in search of food, I?m met with big grins
from all the guys I see, and loud 'gooood morrrning!'s Well fair
enough, it is 00.15.

It turns out that the great irony of doing sleep research is that the
researchers don?t get any.

And 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 si x or ten, 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, 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.
Thank goodness, the four weeks of testing has finished, and I have two
weeks of relative normality before the next cycle begins. From
tomorrow lunchtime, I'm awarding myself two and a half days of doing
exactly whatever I want. Which is going to be a really big fat nothing!

The research I'm doing is looking at how our environment here affects
our thinking, mood and sleep quality, and whether good exercise helps
with all these things. Every six weeks I put each crewmember of the
base through a four day programme of tests, three guys a week, each
starting after the other on consecutive days.
The first day they just answer a few questionnaires, and do a few
computer tests at night. The second day, I see them first thing in
the morning to get temperature monitoring and accelerometry started (a
device that measures movement and so estimates energy expenditure),
and then they spend the afternoon with me in the lab with an EEG cap
on, monitoring their brainwaves whilst they do perceptual speed,
memory, and cognitive tasks. The same day I take blood and saliva
samples to store for gene analysis back in Europe. Then, the guys go
to the gym and exercise hard, and come back and repeat most of the
tests, to see the immediate effects of exercise on the way we think
and behave. The next day, at night, I set them up with a much more
compact brainwave monitoring gear that monitors them as they sleep.
And the next morning with the gear still on we test reaction speed,
decision making, information handling, emotional state.
And this is what?s killing me! Because one crew mate will want to be
set up for the sleep study at ten pm, and then the next night I might
start the set-up at 3am, but I'll have to be up at 8.00 the next
morning , or even earlier, to see someone else. Too many nights like
that and that's how I've ended up in this state. Four weeks of it
wears you down a bit.
On the crew?s part, it is all voluntary. So, I'm really working hard
to keep the guys motivated as I deprive them of sleep, exhaust them in
the gym, stress them with uncomfortable cognitive tests. And do you
know what? That?s the difficult bit. Staying permanently positive,
permanently patient. Staying receptive and sensitive to the slightest
disatisfaction, jumping on it and dealing with it early before it
becomes a complaint that could put them off doing the study. Because
a year of this is going to be a long haul for everyone, and I don?t
want to lose people. I explain, justify, cajole, and if need be
negotiate, just as much as I can. Keep everything positive, never,
never a negative word, look or expression, never let any impatience,
surprise, frustration, slip out. The cost will be enormous. And when
you're as tired as I am that's not easy. But it?s worked so far ?every
one of the twelve guys that have started have promised me they?ll go
again next cycle.
Well done me. Gaaah! Back to the sleeplessness soon enough...

We?ve just been treated to a really extra special green light show tonight.
The last light of the setting sun, as it makes a flat line of orange
light across the horizon, flickers with brief spots of all sorts of
colours ? really vivid spots of green, yellow, blue and irridescent
red. It only lasted for five minutes, and was really beautiful and
The sights are so different here. We have an almost permanent mirage
on the horizon, encircling our disc-world with a second horizon, that
keeps changing it's colour to perfectly mirror the mood of the snow
below it. And I took a photo three nights ago of the sun setting in
the west under a yellow sky, and over deep, deep purple coloured snow,
with little flecks of primary green, irridescent red and yellow slowly
flickering through strips of orange cloud. And last night I saw
the moon stretched to twice times it's normal width and then flattened
to pancake thickness, twice again as wide, as it dropped low enough to
the horizon for refraction to distort it?s light. Every time I go out
I marvel that I'm really here, that a place on Earth can be so alien.

Today is the equinox; from tomorrrow the days will be longer where you
are than where I am, and our sun will set further and further to the
north as we rush toward the Antarctic night.
Fantastic adventure.

Concordia station 75°06'06''S - 123°23'43''E
Satellite uploads at: 02.30, 09.00 and 14.00 UTC
Local time UTC + 8

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Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Bad weather

We've settled into the winterover pretty well. The base is in good
shape, everyone is taking their responsibilities to look after it
seriously. We all are working away as we established before the
summer crew left. Andrea, the base doctor and I have started planning
first aid, BLS, basic trauma care and hospital skills training. As a
crew we've done fire drills led by Fred our chief engineer, and we
were pleased to find we were not found wanting when a false alarm
tested our training. My experiments are starting to bed in at last.
There's always three or four good, rowdy, conversations going on all
at once over the dinner table. All but one of the remaining vehicles
have been packed away for the winter. Everything on the whole is going
very well.
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 rising to -45 or so, but windchill -65. Thick
cloud cover lowered visibility to around 20metres or so and the
pressure dropped to 630 hPa (you have a lovely, dense, 1023 hPa or
so). 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 cames 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. The scientists who need to go to any of the scattered shelters
around the base can't go alone in such poor weather. We go in pairs,
radio checks when we leave and every hour afterwards. We suit up
carefully so no skin at all is exposed.Domenico and I walk out to the glacio shelter, one of the furthest
from the base. We're frequently batted off balance by the gusts,
struggling with footing, following the power cable all the way to the
door. The walk brings back memories scattered right through my past ?
a storm like this seems like a very familiar friend.I remember skiing on Cairngorm in identical conditions, knowing the
warm shelter of the ptarmigan building was nearby and yet preferring
to stay out and test myself in the wind. I remember the visibility
getting so bad that I couldn't see my own feet and the only landmark
to follow toward the run home was the distant clanking the white lady
ski tow. And I remember going back for more. And I remember other
times hiking back to safety in a whiteout on the cairngorm plateau,
the only guide my compass. Shelter, miles away and patience the only
way to keep going. The wind would find gaps in my clothes that somehow
I just couldn't manage to cover properly and I'd have to walk
awkwardly to shelter wrists or cheeks from the windchill. The feeling
is unique and really very precious. As long as I take care to be
warm and safe, I love being out in severe weather.It's funny that a fairly ordinary storm would bring back memories that
I haven't recalled in a decade. I wonder it it's a sign of slight
high level sensory, or cognitive deprivation, or is this something
that happens to everyone when they spend time in a completely
different environment. When everything is so new, is it normal for a
familiar thing to trigger such cascades of old memories?I walk ahead of domenico, twisted to shield a corner of my cheek from
the wind's bite. I've got my googles on my forehead because they
froze when I clumsily adjusted my facemask and let breath get in, but
I'm glad that they're there because I know from old experience that
going headlong into a wind this cold will chill my forehead so badly I
could get sick and dizzy in minutes, despite good hats. But with
head slightly down my eyes are sheltered and I trudge on quite
comfortably. My heart sings with the familiarity of it all. I can't
see my footing at all. One step slips on exposed ice, the next bumps
into an unseen snowdrift and pitches me forward, the fourth shoots off
the other side of the drift, each one is a struggle for balance. The
trick is to accept it will be this way. Go slow, keep your strides
short, don't over exert, don't stop, don't sweat, don't get chilled,
keep a narrow base of balance. Check and check and check the path is
correct. Never, ever, trust your instincts or sense of direction,
they're certain to lead you away into trouble. Be patient, don't
expect every grey shadow in the cloud to be the loom of the base, it's
getting closer but always further than you hope. I count time, and
every thirty seconds I look back to check Domenico is still with me.
I feel insulated, both mentally and physically by my suit and the
storm. All the normal cares fade away and are replaced with the
simple need to get the next footstep right, and then the next.I remember being a child in Caithness, where storms are frequent. The
wind so strong the house shook and shook and gusts would hit the
windows with a bang and make the glass ripple. Thinking about that,
on the way back to concordia, the spotlights on the base, otherwise a
grey shadow in the white cloud, remind me of the three lighthouses
round the coastline whose light would shine on my window. We didn't
have a reliable weather forecast there, and would listen to the
Shipping Forecast, hoping for signs the pressure would start to rise
in Moray and Pentland, a clue the storm would break soon. And all the
shipping in the bay, having crept in to escape the fierceness of the
storm at sea. Here we only have the meteo instruments recordings, no
forecasts. When I get in Paolo and I pore over the meteo readings in
the radio room to figure out if it'll get better or worse today.
Worse, definitely worse. The pressure is not falling, but plunging.A couple of times, taking the excuse to go and put samples out in the
containers just outside the entrance, I just stand in the storm just
to feel it. Well proofed against the cold, I stand and listen to the
wind howl in cables and through gaps. The base shivers in the gusts.
The freshly drifted snow crunches underfoot. The sounds and textures
are so much more salient when there is so little to see, and I have
always loved it.The storm has broken, and the sky has been clearing for the last
couple of days. And tonight the sun is shining strongly through for
the first time. It's eight pm and the sun is quite low on the horizon.
Our sunset gets seventeen minutes earlier every night, now. The view
out my window is of a frozen sea, waves of snow heaped up by the wind
? there are white crests and blue troughs receding into the distance,
and a band of uniform blue below the horizon where the features are
too distant to be seen. All is peaceful again.Pascal shows me the readings our instruments picked up from
Christchurch's earthquake, the strength, the depth, the time. Terrible.
Concordia station 75°06'06''S - 123°23'43''E
Satellite uploads at: 02.30, 09.00 and 14.00 UTC
Local time UTC + 8
This message was sent using IMP, the Internet Messaging Program.