One thousand kilometres from the Antarctic coast, a 12-strong crew is overwintering at one of the most remote places on Earth. The Concordia Station, a French-Italian research base on the Antarctic Ice Sheet, is truly in the middle of nowhere; the next nearest station is 560km away, and all the crew can see if they look around is flat whiteness. The last plane left for the winter in February, leaving the base completely isolated. It won’t see the Sun for four months and temperatures will drop to below -60 Celsius. Oh, and because it’s 2,300 metres above sea level, inhabitants have to make do with about a third less oxygen than at sea level.
It’s not a normal environment for humans, which is exactly why Floris van den Berg is there. A medical doctor sponsored by the European Space Agency, Van den Berg is running a series of research projects at Concordia to explore the physical and psychological effects of living in such surroundings—and the results could give an insight into how we’ll cope with long-distance space travel.
“ESA is interested in this place because it’s one of the only places that you have, like, true isolation,” Van den Berg said in an interview over Skype. We spoke after his colleagues were asleep, as he conceded that the 512kbps satellite connection at the base was “quite shitty” if multiple people tried to Skype at the same time.
A family doctor from the Netherlands, Van den Berg said it was the remote location that attracted him to the unusual job posting in the first place. Having served as a doctor on expeditions around the world, deepest Antarctica seemed like an impressive location to add to the list.
“Working for the European Space Agency is also quite cool in my opinion,” he added.
Concordia has several rather unique parallels with space, which makes it ideal for ESA’s research. As we venture further afield—to Mars, for example—astronauts will be spending more time in close quarters and completely isolated from the rest of the world. With current technology, it takes around eight months to send a robotic mission to the Red Planet. Given its total isolation for months at a time, Concordia is sometimes nicknamed “White Mars.”
“I was quite surprised that everyone was OK with participating with this study, because it’s really like ‘Big Brother is watching’”
Psychological factors are naturally as pressing as physiological ones when it comes to being cooped up for so long, and Van den Berg regularly asks people to fill in questionnaires about their mood and sleep habits. Participants also wear watches that track their activity (especially useful for tracking sleep, which people are often bad at accurately reporting) and interact with beacons on the base to record their movements.
“I was quite surprised that everyone was OK with participating with this study, because it’s really like ‘Big Brother is watching,’” said Van den Berg. Participation in all of the research is voluntary.
“What’s known from previous years is that in the winter everyone gets a little bit down, so people isolate themselves a bit more [and] spend more time in their bedroom and less in the living room,” he added. “This is something you can measure in detail, to see what the group dynamics are, who is visiting which areas, and how much time people spend alone or with each other.”
This is all correlated with people’s questionnaire responses.
Of course, Van den Berg is not immune to the psychological effects that he’s collecting data on, and he said that part of his attraction to the job was the “personal experiment” of living at the base. He said the biggest challenges, after adapting to the low oxygen, were coping with the isolation and also having to constantly bug his cohabitants to take part in his studies on top of their own work.