I realise that I’ve fallen a long way behind in writing this blog. Between the inventories to complete and the permanent darkness that slows us down and turns us soft in the head, it wasn’t so easy to find the time and energy to get started.
One of the tasks of a doctor working at a southern or Antarctic base is to form a team to support him, or even stand in for him.
I’m a bit more privileged than my colleagues at the other French Southern and Antarctic Lands stations because there are two doctors at Concordia. In fact, our station is one of the best possible analogues for future lunar or Martian bases and, since the station’s inception, the European Space Agency (ESA) has funded a post for a research doctor responsible for running the (many) programmes carried out on winterers.
This research doctor is not supposed to be involved in medical care, but it’s still invaluable to have his presence and expertise. Our organisation means that, if necessary, he is also responsible for directing the external rescue team while I prepare to receive the victim. This year, the research doctor is Sascha, a young German neurosurgeon.
The first step was to recruit a team of volunteers to assist Sascha and me. While this year’s rescue team is mainly French, my medical assistants are all Italian: Jacopo, our cook, Domenico, our astronomer (who, before Concordia, was a robotics engineer) and Luca, the Italian glaciologist (who is a chemist back in Italy).
I then had to devise a programme to enable these people, who had no previous medical training, to be able to provide semi-autonomous care in just a few weeks: measure ‘vitals’, do an electrocardiogram, take an X-ray using our equipment, do blood tests, prepare infusions or injectable medicines and give injections, do simple sutures, manage hygiene and asepsis in the operating theatre, be an operating assistant to Sascha or an anaesthetist’s assistant to me…
And you know what? They rose to the challenge, and were more than up to the task. Little by little (but in just 3 months), they have acquired skills, concepts and ways of thinking that were totally foreign to them before.
At the beginning of May, we organised a major 3-hour exercise to put the skills they had acquired into practice.
And, as my ‘students’ had proved themselves, I logically organised a ‘graduation ceremony’.
That’s how I finally had the opportunity to get out the badges that Julien Dubedout had so skilfully designed for me (Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!).
There were badges for the Medical team, of course, but as it’s a chain that involves everyone, there were also badges for the Rescue team and for those who have to stay and ensure general coordination (the Station Leader, the ICT and the Technical Manager).
A few days ago, I accompanied Damien on one of his outings.
Damien is one of our two glaciologists (there are a French and an Italian ones). Well… he is not originally a glaciologist: he is a cryogenic systems engineer. He is the only one of us working here in a warmer « environment » than his usual professional « environment »!
(In fact, none of the overwintering scientists are really working in their original field of expertise. Why not? Because all the experiments are set up in summer. The job of the wintering scientists is to maintain the installations, to collect the data and to transmit them. So you have to have a good scientific background but not necessarily be a specialist in the specific field).
Twice a week, Damien has to go to the « Clean area » to take samples. This is a large area, access to which is prohibited in order to preserve the purity of the snow.
But before going out, you have to cover yourself up because it is -64°C and, as there is a bit of wind, the windchill is -81°C.
Damien tries on a mask lent to him by Vincent. It is supposed to limit the problems of fogging in the mask.
It makes especially nice breathing plumes.
It is 2.20 pm, the sun is already setting behind « Astro shelter ».
And after 15 minutes of walking, we arrive at « Atmos shelter ».
Despite the anti-fog conscientiously applied before leaving, I am almost blind when I arrive.
A short break in the warmth, the time for Damien to do some manipulations and prepare the tubes and bags necessary for the three different types of samples he has to take today.
The first samples are of nitrates and sulphates from the atmosphere, which are deposited with the snow. As long as you don’t pee in the snow (!), there is no real risk of contamination and they can therefore be taken directly next to the shelter. Their results will be correlated with the atmospheric ozone measurements made by one of the shelter’s machines.
The most superficial layer of snow must be recovered. To do this, Damien starts by scraping the surface with a DIY shop spatula and recovers the small ridge thus formed with a candy shovel! (As is often the case here, we have a mixture of ultra-precise high-tech and DIY elements… but it works!)
It is time to go to the Clean Area. We follow a path marked out by stakes, from which we must not deviate.
At each round of sampling, Damien puts a marker and the next round will be done 10 steps further. This year it’s on the left side of the path, last year it was on the right.
Once he has arrived at the day’s marker, Damien sets off at right angles to take five pairs of samples every 10 steps. These samples are intended, on the one hand, to study water isotopes and, on the other, to measure the density of the snow.
For the latter measurement, a small hole must be dug and then two samples taken (at the surface and at a depth of 7 centimetres) using a small probe whose volume is very precisely calibrated (when the snow is too compact, the hammer is needed to push it in!)
The density can change considerably within 10 steps and, for the first time since his arrival, one of the samples was not possible because the surface was so hard.
After half an hour, the sampling is finished, the sun has gone below the horizon and it is really cold. It is time to return to the shelter.
3.50pm, back to the station with some pretty incredible colours. It is -82°C, we are exhausted.
The first rider was mounted on a horse, one side of which was the colour of jet and the other the colour of snow. His name was Polar Night and he rode in the lead as he led the others.
For 15 whole weeks the sun did not set. The star kept turning, from east to west, from right to left. It swayed, low on the horizon, in an azure sky with only occasional clouds. And the humans had to trust their watches and clocks to realise that the time of rest was coming. And they had to shut their shutters to get some sleep.
The tilt lasted 7 weeks during which the night appeared, progressed rapidly before a time of uncertainty when day and night seemed to confront each other and one could believe, if one was foolish enough, that this rhythm could perhaps last. But imperceptibly the darkness would prevail and suddenly the days would again begin to shorten in leaps and bounds before disappearing completely.
And for 15 full weeks, night reigned. The starry sky filled the whole space, spinning around. It was the time of the Southern Lights and Sirius, of the Southern Cross and Canopus. And humans had to make do with artificial lights, light therapy devices and hope in the return of the sun.
The second rider was the son of the first and walked just behind. He was riding a pale blue horse and his name was Freezing cold. The sun was low on the horizon for half the year and absent the rest of the time, allowing him to flourish.
The average temperature was -51°C. Even in the summer, it rarely got above -25°C. And during the polar night, oh, during the polar night, the cold attacked to the core and without mercy. 60°C or 70°C below zero was the norm. 80°C on some days. Even though the wind was rarely violent in these places, the felt temperatures were often -90°C or -100°C.
Humans had no choice but to stay indoors for most of the day. When they had to go out, especially in winter, they could only do so wearing a caparison, as the smallest piece of skin exposed to the elements would freeze in a few moments. Hands protected in thick mittens with heaters were rendered almost helpless. They could only get out, even when wrapped in protective undergloves, for a few dozen seconds.
And if, in the summer, it was possible to move around in ski-doos and handling was made easier by the machines that humans had invented, the same was not true in winter. Above -50°C, even the « Special Antarctic Blend » fuel oil became pasty. Plastics were brittle and unusable. The only vehicle capable of going outside, and even then only if it was parked in a warm place and never stopped outside, was the ancient « clack-clack » made entirely of metal.
The third and fourth riders followed in the footsteps of the second. The third rider was mounted on a sand-coloured horse and his name was Dryness because in this icy air there was hardly any water in liquid or gaseous form.
The relative humidity of the air outside, around 60%, was deceptive because this cold air could contain little vapour anyway. Inside the base, in this same heated air, it was no more than 10%.
The humans were pleased with the speed with which their clothes were drying. But they could see their skin cracking, their lips cracking, their noses crusting. And they had to resort to greasy creams, balms and humidifiers which, even if they released more than half a litre of water per night in a room, were not enough.
The fourth rider was the younger brother of the previous one. He was riding a lively and nervous stallion and his name was Static electricity. For the metal structure had no connection to the ground, which was absent. The ice crystals constantly rubbing against it pulled electrons from it and the insulation transformer that had been installed could not do everything.
Moreover, such dry air had strange insulating properties and the electrons, deprived of the possibility to circulate freely, accumulated rapidly in the bodies waiting to be released in a bluish arc. This put men to the test as the slightest handshake could result in a whiplash. One had to invent stratagems to regularly let out one’s overflow of electrons, giving rise to strange rituals: looking for the nearest metal element (fortunately, there were some everywhere), mechanically rubbing one’s elbows (the least sensitive part of the body) on the aluminium strips lining the corners of furniture, using a piece of metal as a lightning rod to increase the surface area of the skin concerned…
Even more than the humans, their machines were put to the test. One careless mistake, one bluish flash, and a device could break down. Definitely. Sometimes strange things happened: leaning against the desk could trigger the ringing of the telephone at the other end! Electronics’ life was pretty cheap in this environment.
The fifth and last rider was walking a bit apart from the others. His horse was diaphanous, almost transparent and his name was Hypoxia. And against him, there were not many ways to defend oneself.
He was not, however, a complete stranger to the first four, for even though the bedrock here was below sea level, the cold had allowed the ice to accumulate, millennium after millennium, to a phenomenal thickness of more than 3 kilometres. This altitude of 3,200 metres, together with the thinner atmosphere of the Earth’s poles, resulted in an atmospheric pressure of no more than 660 hPa, sometimes dropping to 625 hPa. This is equivalent to an altitude of 3,500 to 3,800 m in Europe.
The proportion of O2 in the air always remained the same, so the oxygen pressure was reduced by more than a third.
And humans were losing their breath.
The first few days were the worst: headaches, sleepless nights, fatigue…
Gradually the adaptation took place, the heart and breathing quickened, the haemoglobin levels reached unusual values and the haemoglobin released its oxygen more easily. But even then, the resting oxygen saturation, usually 98 or 99% in good condition, was only 93 or 94%. And it quickly dropped below 90% for modest efforts. Even then, the breath was short after climbing the two floors of the towers. Even then, talking continuously required catching your breath much more often than usual. Even then, lying in bed, you could feel your chest heaving for air at times. Even then, sleep was often short of rest (1).
And I saw these five horsemen advance on the white expanse.
And power was given to them over this part of the world, to torment Men by night, by cold, by drought, by lightning and by breath.
For this was not a land kind to humans.
(1) Sleep at high altitude is generally marked by an increase in sleep apnea. These do not respond to the same mechanism as the "classic" obstructive sleep apneas. What triggers the breathing reflex is not only the level of oxygen in the blood but also, and very importantly, the level of carbon dioxide (CO2). We are not only hypoxic (low blood oxygen) but also hypocapnic (low CO2), particularly because of our hyperventilation. Faced with all this, the brain centres that control breathing are a bit lost and can start to do anything, for example alternating hyperventilation and apnoea, thus creating a rather harmful "periodic breathing"…
I am going to introduce you to one of the most fascinating, and dangerous, buildings in Concordia Station: the American Tower.
It is not easy to find precise information about this tower. It is one of the oldest buildings on the base. In the early 2000s, even before the construction of the permanent station, this tower was built to house a NASA science project.
Afterwards, our American friends decided they had enough to do with their McMurdo and South Pole stations and left this strange structure to the French and Italians.
Located 1 km from the base, it was then 35 m high before being raised by about 15 meters.
It is now home to a number of meteorological measurement instruments, others dedicated to monitoring the movement and temperature of snow cover, as well as an ESA facility: DOMEX, which serves as a calibration site for radiometry satellites studying soil moisture or sea surface salinity.
Damien, one of our Glaciologists, and Davide, our mission leader, have to go there regularly to maintain the installation and, in particular, to defrost the measuring instruments. This is an operation that must be carried out at least once a week.
At the moment, this is still done under the sun, with actual temperatures of -40°C at the « hottest » part of the day, which gives felt temperatures of -50 to -65°C taking into account the windchill effect. And at the top of the tower? Well, at the moment, it’s worse. (During the polar night, it’s more complicated: it’s often warmer at the top of the tower than at the base, but with more wind, so…)
I’ll let you imagine what this defrosting exercise will mean during the polar night when we will have lost another 20 or 30°C of temperature.
That’s why this is one of the two facilities where it’s mandatory to go with at least two people, and three when it will be the polar night.
Four days ago, it was me who accompanied Davide.
Davide is Italian. He usually runs a particle physics laboratory in Padua. At Concordia, he holds the somewhat catch-all scientific position of « Electronics for science ». He is in charge of maintaining a whole bunch of scientific installations in a wide variety of fields: seismology, geomagnetism, atmospheric observation, meteorology…
He is also the one who has been appointed as the DC19 mission leader and we couldn’t imagine a better choice. But I’ll tell you about that another time…
For the moment, it’s time to come with us to the American Tower!
Like every scientific facility, the American Tower has a shelter that is heated (depending on the situation, to +4°C, +8°C or +15°C). Some are under the snow, others on the surface. And still others, like the American Tower’s one, were originally above ground and are now well below the snow level.
The first step is to go down into the shelter to fit ourselves with harnesses. At the base of the tower, we attach our harnesses to a « life line » that goes up to the top of the tower.
We can then start our ascent and Davide starts to defrost the sheaths and instruments as we go along. Normally he uses a large brush but this one was broken and, on this day, he did it all with his under-gloves. Luckily we had our heaters in our mittens.
And so, landing after landing, we reached the top of the tower. Or almost, because the last two landings don’t have instruments and we weren’t going to be overzealous.
The weather was rather calm but, in spite of that, we could feel the top moving!