Saturday, 24 December 2011

A turn for the better.

My summer project is to run ESA?s LTMS3 equipment. It?s pretty smart,
really. ESA has designed thin, solid but very unobtrusive dry sensors
that clip into a t-shirt, one below each axilla and one that presses
onto the sternum. Together they record a two lead ECG continuously,
oxygen saturations with red and infrared light reflectance,
respiratory rate with impedance through the vest?s stretching,
accelerometry, heart rate, and it can add other things if necessary.
It all gets recorded onto a neat, seemingly bombproof datalogger
that?s light enough that you can forget it?s there. ESA is looking at
it as a prototype that can be developed in two ways; one, as a sensor
incorporated into a training space suit under development in Spain,
and the other as a circadian monitor for long term monitoring of
astronauts. What we?re doing with it here is a technical analysis,
to see how well it works and how well it?s tolerated in this very
hostile ecological setting. All I have to do is ask people to wear the
gear, and bring back the recordings to Europe. Although, I do have an
idea about looking at the data for a medical study, but that?s
secondary to the project aims we?re working with here.

But the software to operate the device has....died. Progressively,
bafflingly. On two separate computers. And so slowly that I wasted a
lot of time trying to figure out why what I did three weeks ago wasn?t
working properly one week later, and not working at all the week after
that. As I started the troubleshooting process with the Swiss
designers more and more problems developed. We have no idea what has
happened to it. And the thing about malfunctioning Antarctic
equipment, as many of the newly arrived scientists will tell you at
great length, is that life is not much fun until the problem is fixed
because time to collect data is so short here, you spend your every
waking minute trying to find a solution. Finally we decided to
abandon large aspects of the software and concentrate on whether it is
at least configuring the datalogger correctly to record. So I
transmitted some very short files ? 5 minute recordings - to
Switzerland for them to look at and I got the word back the other day
that they look good. So, this week I got back to setting up the
device on volunteers, and I?ll just take the raw data files back to
Europe with me. We just have to hope that they are good, as there is
no way out here to check a full-sized file. But, we have a plan and a
hardware system that appears to be working. It?s a relief.

One of the big deals of going from winter to summer is the
communication of all that happened, teaching new people how the base
works, and integrating everyone into a team that knows the important
stuff. And another big deal is perhaps that the old dogs don?t
respect enough that things will change with the new arrivals. Andrea
was very careful with regard to my nut allergy over the winter, there
was never a danger. Both the new chefs knew about it, but I should
have respected the risks with the changes. So, anyway, two weeks ago I
managed to have two anaphylactic reactions in 48 hours. It was OK, I
was only a minute away from the drugs to stop the reactions so they
didn?t get very far. But it does mess up your immune system ? already
deranged by the hypoxia here - for a while. The very next day a new
guy was moved into my room and I found him coughing and coughing later
that day. He?d developed laryngitis and stayed quiet about it until he
was safely installed in the station. I knew I was in for a rough time.
I?ve been coughing like crazy for two weeks, in that time most
people caught it and got better. So, my approval of communal living
has dropped a few points! And trying to fix the LTMS3 software
through all this, well, life for a while there seemed to be just a bit

In November we evacuated yet another case of HAPE down to MZS. And we
had another guy a week later, febrile with a sore throat a couple of
days after arriving here. Vincenzo, the base doctor treated him with
antibiotics. But 48-72h or so after, he dropped his saturations to 78
per cent, which is lower than normal for a new arrival here, but you
certainly don?t get a drop like that from a sore throat.
Interestingly, this guy had apparently developed fluid in his lungs
after developing a throat infection, and as a result his blood oxygen
levels were dropping. How much worse could it get? There was no way to
know, it depends on several unknowable factors, like how severe his
illness was at the cellular and biochemical level, how susceptible he
was to pulmonary oedema, and how fast he was acclimatising. Anyone
could have a threshold altitude at which they?d develop oedema at, and
there is no way to know how close they are to that threshold until
they cross it and become unwell. Or how easily circulating
inflammatory signals could tip the balance. We kept him here,
observed him and he got better, the crackles in his chest resolved.
Thinking about this when I realised I was getting unwell, I thought
that there is no way to know what could happen. So, just in case, I
worked through the night to organise and pack my data, samples and
equipment so that someone else could easily arrange the transfer of
all my year?s work if I had to leave the base. I knew it was likely
to be an overreaction, and that spending several hours in the cold was
not the best idea. But I know enough about this station to know that
when you need something organised, you?d better do it yourself! Or
your work could end up languishing here for a year until the next
summer campaign, and I really didn?t want to take that chance, however
small it seemed.
Anyway, everything is going the right way now. I?m just about back to
normal and I never had to stop work, thankfully. And my winter?s work
is all boxed up and ready to go, a little earlier than necessary. It?s
very nice to have that done.

Things are going well for the summer campaign now, too. All the
delayed scientific equipment has finally arrived and the scientific
teams are busily getting on with things. In working hours the base
seems almost deserted, now everyone can get on with their research.
The big OPALE study, a multidisciplinary team following on from the
EPICA work who have brought tonnes and tonnes of machines to analyse
gasses and radicals cycling between snow and atmosphere, is finally
up and running. Several other teams have already left the base, their
projects set up and running on automatic, or with one remaining to
keep an eye on it. Unfortunately one team had to leave before all
their equipment arrived and so they left without any data, but I think
that they took a risk on an unrealistically tight schedule. They
seemed fairly philosophical about it, anyway.

As the planes come and go they bring more and more friends from last
year, which is great. Our numbers are up to 80 now. But at the same
time the DC7 crew is thinning out. The Astrolabe should have arrived
in DDU by now, and will be departing again in a couple of days taking
four of the French guys with it. Ilann and Pascal left to go to DDU a
week ago - apparently Ilann has spent the time there helping with snow
petrel surveys ? and Vivien and Eric will fly down later today, and
then they all join the ship to return to Australia. They?re all very
happy to be moving on. David has left Concordia as well, joining a
scientific traverse that is travelling further into Antarctica?s
interior to Vostok Station, making three weeks of pristine atmospheric
and snow measurements along the way. Of the DC7 wintercrew, only me,
Fred and Djamel will be left. Wow.

Anyway, today some of the guys put up our Christmas decorations, and
we?re looking forward to a couple of days? break. I hope you have a
happy holidays, folks. And please spare a thought for all the doctors,
nurses and all the others who?ll be working through it, I know I will.

Actually, I've just realised I missed the last mail exchange of the
day, and when it goes with the next exchange it'll already be
Christmas day. Bonne Noel a tous!

Current meteo data: Temp -33.9 Pressure 651 millibars Wind speed 2m/s
Concordia station
75°06'06''S - 123°23'43''E Local time UTC + 8

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1 comment:

  1. Don't know why, but I woke up this morning with Antarctica on my mind. Will be coming back to visit your site in a few days when I have some time. So glad I found it today. I'm a food blogger in the US.