Life in the deep freezer

28th January 2005 at 00:00
"When scientists return home after a long period of time, they forget they need to take money when they go to the shops," says Professor Lloyd Peck, who leads British Antarctic Survey's Life at the Edge Programme and gave last year's Royal Institution Christmas lecture on life in Antarctica.

The average temperature in coastal areas in summer hovers around freezing, but in winter it can drops to as low as - 30C. You can get a 20-degree change in temperature in less than 24 hours. Scientists venturing outside have to wear special clothing to protect against frostbite.

"The difference between calm and windy weather is like Jekyll and Hyde," says Annette Faux, formerly a meterologist with BAS. "On clear, calm winter nights, you see the Milky Way stretching across the horizon and you feel like you can see to infinity."

In winter, the sun doesn't rise above the horizon for three months. Ships are unable to penetrate the ice and scientists are cut off from the outside world. As summer approaches, the 24-hour darkness gives way to constant daylight.

These unusual patterns of daylight affect scientists' sleeping patterns.

"In the UK, I usually need around eight hours sleep," says Professor Peck.

"But in the Antarctic summer I get by on four to six hours a night. Those who stay through the winter sleep more. Instead of seven or eight hours they'll need nine or ten."

Sometimes people need to leave their base to conduct their research.

Camping in the middle of Antarctica is a very unusual experience indeed. If it's - 40C outside it might take you two hours just to get out of your frozen sleeping bag, put clothes on and eat breakfast. That's because you have to warm the tent with the stove, melt ice for tea and dress without exposing any skin to the cold air.

You can't just snack on an apple or banana because they'll be frozen. "Try making yourself a tuna mayo sandwich, put it in the deep freeze and then try to eat it," says Professor Peck. "You'll find you just can't do it. The scientists even have to snap chocolate into pieces before heading into the field because otherwise it's not possible to break a bar up."

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