Mike Stroud is a polar explorer and a consultant gastroenterologist at Southampton University Hospital, United Kingdom. He will monitor members of Ranulph Fiennes’ trans-Antarctic expedition in the coldest season of the coldest place on Earth. He explains just how many things could go wrong. You can follow the expedition’s progress at thecoldestjourney.org.
Michael Bond: Tell me about this expedition, which is due to arrive in Antarctica next month.
Mike Stroud: It’s the first-ever attempt to cross Antarctica in the polar winter. The challenge is whether it is possible to operate in the coldest place on Earth at the coldest time of the year.
MB: One of the expedition’s research projects is called “White Mars.” What’s that about?
MS: The six guys on this expedition will be isolated in a small living module in a very hostile environment with no way out and no daylight for six months. They are the perfect analogy for astronauts going off on a prolonged space mission.
MB: What body functions will you be monitoring?
MS: We’ll be looking at what the environment does to their fitness, their body composition, their hormonal status, their psychological responses. We’ll look at vitamin D regulation, which is bound to change in the darkness. The cold will be intense, down to -80 Celsius. When you’re breathing very cold air you get respiratory damage. I have ended up coughing blood in less extreme places than this. We’re also interested in whether lack of cognitive stimuli will have deleterious effects.
MB: How does this compare with the Mars500 experiment?
MS: Mars500 was designed to simulate a crewed mission, but they were basically locked in a box in a carpark. Psychologically that is not the same. If something had gone wrong, they could have come out. In Antarctica you can’t. There are real threats from the hostile environment. The chances of getting hurt or suffering from the psychological pressures are higher. So this is vastly more real than anything that’s been done before.
MB: The U.K. foreign office gave a permit for the expedition only once it was convinced it was safe enough. What changed?
MS: My original idea was for a simple, lightweight expedition with me and Ranulph Fiennes, but because that wasn’t feasible, it has morphed into a huge, vehicle-supported trip taking a year. That is why I’m not going—it would take me away from my job for too long. The original idea had a measure of insanity, but it is even closer to insane now.
MB: Why is the expedition more “insane” now?
MS: I believe the foreign office’s attitude, which led to this vehicle-led concept, has made the trip vastly more dangerous and less likely to succeed. Operating complicated machinery in that environment is asking for trouble. We’ve tried to envisage every problem that could arise with the tractors, but it wasn’t practical to test everything at those temperatures. Are the seals going to fail? You hope not.
MB: What is most likely to go wrong?
MS: Lots of things could go wrong. Anything made of rubber or plastic has a problem, and computer hard drives have real trouble in cold and low-oxygen environments. Psychologically it is a completely different challenge to anything we’ve tried before. You’ve got six individuals in a very contained, pressurized environment, unable to get out of it.
This article originally appeared in New Scientist.