Science at the extremes
by David Bradley
The extreme cold and isolation of Antarctica creates a unique environment
and opportunity for scientific study. In this article, the author explores
what it's like to do research in one of the most remote places on Earth.
You can't get there from here
Not easily, anyway. Night follows day and lasts for several months of the year, and the nearest supplies and spare parts are thousands of air miles away. Moreover, the risk of losing your extremities to frostbite is high even in the middle of summer. But if you fancy abandoning the attractions of city life and seeking solace in the seeming cold and isolation, then Antarctica may be the place for you. You have to be dedicated and love the science you are studying, perhaps even more than the scientist back home. But for some, the extreme conditions are part of the attraction. Antarctica, a land of opportunity?
Antarctic discoveries like the ozone hole and collapsing ice shelves fire the public imagination with fears of imminent global catastrophe, but as with much popular science, the headline grabbers are really only the tip of a very big iceberg. There are almost as many types of scientists carrying out the same diverse range of studies in the last continent as elsewhere in the world. Climatologists do everything from studying the changing depth of ozone high above their heads to digging out columns of ancient frozen mud from deep beneath the ice in the hope of tracking prehistoric weather. Ecologists, meanwhile, watch everything from penguins and seals to polychaetes and stygarctidae.
Glaciologists observe collapsing ice shelves while mineralogists assess inorganic content. Micropaleontologists, geochemists, historians, and even cosmologists watch over the fallout from supernovae. Medical researchers, too, spend time keeping a weather eye on the health of the inmates of various research centers. Five thousand scientists head south each year.
The British Antarctic Survey (BAS) says there are about 5,000 international scientists from 27 national research organizations working on the continent during any one year. The BAS - as well as such stations as the United States' Mac Town (formally known as McMurdo), Russia's Vostok Station, the coldest and most isolated place on Earth, or Germany's Georg von Neumayer station - serves the scientific community with various observations of Antarctica. The Antarctic ice sheet covers an area the size of the United States and Mexico combined, so there is still plenty of open, desolate space out there.
The BAS recruitment literature claims that scientists working in Antarctica are actually among the fittest in the world, and that since Antarctica is far from sources of pollution and disease, it is probably the healthiest place in the world. You don't get to work there if you are past your prime, prefer the soothing climate of warmer climes, have a weakness of spirit, or simply fail the rigorous medical tests that research organizations such as BAS put you through before you are posted to the deepest South. This scientist and her subject matter thrive at extremes.
"I became fascinated by the ability of microbes to thrive at extremes," says BAS scientist Alison George, "and jumped at the chance of working on Antarctic bacteria 'in the field.' " Like many other visitors, she was apprehensive of her first visit. "I have only visited the Antarctic once, but then for 18 continuous months. I was apprehensive of committing so much time to somewhere so very different from anything I had known." She was excited, however and, "pretty sure that I'd like it, having fallen in love with the place from colleagues' descriptions."
The Antarctic truly provides researchers with an "extreme" environment in which to work - in many senses of the word. Jennifer Skerratt of the Antarctic Marine Microbial Biotechnology Program in Hobart, Tasmania worked as a volunteer for Australia's CSIRO (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization) marine research after completing her degree, and siezed the chance to work there. "Hobart is the 'gateway to the Australian Antarctic,'" she explains, "so it was really a case of being in the right place at the right time." Her stay was for five months. "I only knew of two other people who had been there, and they were both experienced, older, male scientists, so being a young female, I wasn't sure what to expect," Skerratt says. BAS' George adds, "After a few weeks of feeling homesick and getting used to the new culture and language - yes, Antarcticans have their own vocabulary - I loved the atmosphere on base." Where else to discover cold-adapted enzymes?
Skerratt's research involves isolating cold-adapted enzymes from bacteria. "These have potential in various food processing, bioremediation, and janitorial industrial applications," she explains. "For instance, as low-temperature biological washing powders or potential medical products."
Skerratt was worried that it might be dangerous, but her biggest fear was of the unknown. "I had no comprehension of what it would be like," she confessed. But her fears were quickly allayed on arrival. "It is still the most spectacular place I have ever been to - haunting, untouched, and extreme. I felt that it was so spectacular that I could never fully absorb and appreciate the beauty." "The day-to-day excitement helped to pass the time."
Carol Mancuso Nichols was also astounded by the beauty of the Antarctic. She became involved with research there when she was invited to participate in an expedition to study Ace Lake in the Vestfold Hills near the Australian Antarctic Base, Davis. "The trip to Antarctica was a wonderful opportunity to be involved in an exciting project in a magnificent environment," she enthuses. "I was apprehensive about being far from loved ones, but the day-to-day excitement helped to pass the time."
Ace Lake has a lot of secrets to reveal, microbiologically speaking. "It is one of the few meromictic lakes in the world," explains Mancuso Nichols. "It is ice-covered nearly all year long, and as a result, the top and bottom waters don't mix." This means that there are layers within the lake, and about halfway down, there is no oxygen, so the microorganisms that live at this depth are peculiar. "I am using lipid markers to characterize the community structure of these microorganisms," she adds. Some scientists study other scientists.
The conditions in this extreme environment can be stressful, and this is often a major determinant of one's immune response. Researchers such as Desmond Lugg of the Australian Antarctic Division have observed physiological changes in the staff and scientists spending prolonged periods there. Lugg has measured alterations in T cell function as well as other immunological changes that might explain the reduced cognition, mood disturbances, increased energy requirements, and a decline in thyroid activity recorded by other researchers.
Randall Hyer, now a civil military liaison officer at the World Health Organization in Geneva, overwintered as a U.S. Navy physician at Mac Town. This most remote of all earthbound medical postings makes telemedicine crucial to good practice. Radio, fax, and now the Internet can save lives among workers in Antarctica when serious and life-threatening illnesses emerge. "During my winter," Hyer says, "we had coronary artery disease, acute appendicitis, hip dislocation, and complicated Colles' fracture of the forearm, among others." All medical problems that occur anywhere in the world can arise - with the possible exception of heatstroke - and the lack of a local city hospital can make a simple problem into a real emergency. Most important in riding out such emergencies is the personal contact with outside specialists. "I knew many of the specialists personally, and this human connection was my most important asset," Hyer explains. Subsyndromal seasonal affective disorder is rampant.
Hyer was also apprehensive of the isolation, darkness, and whether he could handle medical emergencies. "The isolation is the hardest. It is the lack of new personalities and energy that wears people down,' he says. He points out that seasonal affective disorder is rampant, although overt depression is rare. He adds that compensating for that is the fact that the long, dark winter beginning in March and running through August actually has "a nice, cozy feeling." In addition, those who overwinter are rewarded with aurora australis, the moon, the stars, and "an untouched, unpolluted, pristine beauty that I will never forget."
For many scientists working in the Antarctic, much of their work is quite physical. A degree of mechanical competency and a bit of lateral thinking are called for when things go wrong, which, according to Skerratt, they often do. "There is a need to be able to get on well with other people from a variety of backgrounds - mechanics, scientists, public servants, chefs, and others," she adds. At each station, workers are essentially confined to a microcosm, and "people skills" come to the fore. "There was very little privacy."
Mancuso Nichols agrees. "Living very closely with the people you are 'thrown together with' is very interesting - a mix of scientists, technical support people, and trades people." A lack of privacy means that you get to know your colleagues rather well. "I'd say lifetime friendships were formed in my four months in the Antarctic," Nichols adds. But not everyone wants to be so close. "There was very little privacy," points out BAS' George. "In the summer, with up to 100 people on base, I was sharing a room with three others. Despite being in one of the most remote locations in the world, it was very hard to 'get away from it all.' You couldn't disappear off on your own, for safety reasons."
Having the rare ability to enjoy oneself under such difficult conditions can be very beneficial, as Skerratt can testify. "We were collecting samples on the ice one day when it was below freezing and blowing so hard we could only just stand up," she laughs. "The seawater was freezing on us as soon as it touched our clothes, and the wind was so strong I had to hold the bottle to be filled on a horizontal plane, and the water flowed in, in a perfect straight horizontal line. It was a difficult day, but it's a memory of sampling that I won't forget." In stark contrast, the scientists tend to wear shorts and T-shirts indoors. Getting there can be half the trip.
The experience is not always fun and games. "We spent a summer at Davis, although it took six weeks to get there since we were stuck in the ice for four weeks!" says Mancuso Nichols. "We took three weeks to get back, via Casey Station, which left only six weeks to collect profiles of water column bacteria and sediment cores. That meant several helicopter chases to and from the lake."
George offers some perspective on being a scientist in the Antarctic: "In the company of the same people for so long, wearing practical clothes and no makeup, I felt that gender became less and less of an issue. Being there makes you realize what stupid games we play back in the so-called 'civilized' world."