I can’t think as clearly as I did six months ago. This is common around base. Being in a good mood is often a choice, as opposed to an instinct. Forgetfulness, mental and physical fatigue, irrational behavior, moodiness, and trying to talk to someone who is only returning a 1,000 yard stare are common occurrences. When encountered, these occurrences are excused and even laughed at. They are just a fact of wintering over in Antarctica. We call it going toasty and it is often chalked up to Polar T3 syndrome, but I think there might be more causes.
Polar T3 syndrome – Triiodothyronine (T3) is a thyroid hormone. Polar T3 syndrome is caused when the body tries to warm itself by consuming its reserves of T3 in the muscles, which leaves a deficiency for the brain. This hoarding reaction is similar to hypothermia when the body shifts its resources to the core and ‘lizard brain’ sets in. In one study of people living in Antarctica for an extended amount of time, their energy intake was increased by approximately 40% without a change in body weight. Almost everyone’s body temperature runs a little low while they are here, so I’d expect the body would be trying to warm itself.
Seasonal Affective Disorder - Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is well known to those who live in an area that has a dark season. It causes seasonal mood swings, specifically depression in the winter. In the TV show Northern Exposure, Dr. Joel Fleishman actually gets Reverse SAD. The extended day in Alaska makes him so up and gives him so much energy that he never sleeps. With SAD in the Northern hemisphere, you’d be down in the winter and up in the summer. The cause is believed to be a lack of sunlight, but the data is inconclusive so far. A common form of therapy is to spend thirty minutes a day in a light room.
Circadian Rhythm - As every parent tells their children, a good night’s sleep will allow you to perform better on a test. If you aren’t sleeping well, you aren’t going to be thinking well. Everyone has their own natural rhythm whether they are a morning lark or a night owl and they tend to stick to that. To maintain that rhythm, we use environmental time cues like sunrise and sunset. Unfortunately, we don’t have those here and a lot of people do have trouble sleeping.
Monotony - The idea of Antarctica is very exciting. The reality doesn’t always match it. Don’t get me wrong, this place is beautiful and I am constantly awed by it. However, our day to day time here is often very reminiscent of the movie Groundhog Day. We do the same things day after day, week after week. For a further elaboration on this, please check out B-Neslon’s brilliant post about day to day life here.
Overworked - This is pretty much an extension of monotony, but slightly different. We work ten hour days with a one hour lunch break every day, six days a week. We get a single two day weekend per month. We might not be overwhelmed with stuff to do, but always having to be at work takes a certain toll. We all knew exactly what we signed up for, but I think the lack of a true chance to recuperate is a contributing cause to our mental fatigue. I know that I don’t plan to ever do a full year contract again because the cumulative fatigue takes away from my appreciation of the experience.
Confinement and Isolation – Simply put, solitary confinement is considered punishment in jail. While we have nothing even remotely as severe as that going on, we are cut off from our existing support networks and the physical world. It can be emotionally tough and likely to contribute to moodiness. On the other hand, some people prefer the winter because they love the isolation. Some days, I enjoy it. Lots of days, I think of good people back home.
Crowding – This last one is on here for moodiness as well. When you spend time with the same group of people long enough, certain quirks might start to bother you more. I believe most of have experienced some form of this with our families, who we’ve probably spent more time with than anyone else. A couple weeks ago, human resources told people to be careful what they say because things that might have been funny at the beginning of the season aren’t necessarily funny anymore.
Consumption – Just before I sent this blog out the door, a couple people suggested some things that I hadn't thought of. The first one was that the consumption of alcohol tends to happen at higher levels down here. Recovering from drinking can definitely fatigue the body. The other suggestion was the quality of food. I think the galley does a great job with what they are given, but there is only so much they can do without fresh ingredients. The things that are sent down here to be cooked are probably sent because they last and are cheap, not because they taste good.
“People on [polar] expeditions generally undergo psychological changes resulting from exposure to long periods of isolation and confinement, and the extreme physical environment. Symptoms include disturbed sleep, impaired cognitive ability negative affect, and interpersonal tension and conflict. . . . Numerous explorers will enjoy the entire experience and enjoy positive reactions to the challenges of the environment. They thrive on the feeling of having successfully overcome these challenges. They quote such expressions as "the beauty and grandeur of the land, ice, and sea, the camaraderie and mutual support of the team, the admirable qualities of their leader, and the thrill of facing and overcoming the challenges of the environment." – LA Palinkas and P Suedfeld
Is this short list of hardships, that past winterovers say will take a month off ice to overcome, worth it? You can bet on it.