Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station on August 17th.
Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station on August 17th.
Toast, also known as “Polar T3 Syndrome” or “winter-over syndrome”, is a phenomenon that often presents itself in polar winter-overs. While it’s a popular joke and a common excuse it can ultimately become a serious issue. Someone who’s toast is burnt out – simply done.
In a paper published in 2003 Dr. Palinkas examined winter-overs and the winter-over syndrome: “This syndrome is characterized by varying degrees of depression; irritability and hostility; insomnia; and cognitive impairment, including difficulty in concentration and memory, absentmindedness, and the occurrence of mild hypnotic states known as “long-eye” or the “Antarctic stare.” These symptoms have been observed to increase over time, peaking at mid-winter, and then declining during the third quarter of winter-over duty, only to increase again at the end of the winter-over period. These symptoms were first reported by Frederick Cook (1900), the polar explorer and anthropologist who served as physician aboard the Belgica. Since that time, they have been evident in almost every expedition. Most winter-over personnel at both stations experience these symptoms to various degrees.”
We’re pale with bags under our eyes. It’s not uncommon to see someone just staring at the juice machine for 10-50 minutes…long-eye. Words fail us, simple processes that we’ve done over and over suddenly make no sense. The personality quirks we normally keep hidden from public make their way to the surface – the months of isolation and confinement stealthily eroding our defenses, our social normalcy.
“Everyone is a moon, and has a dark side which he never shows to anybody.”
– Mark Twain
We’ve been living together, just the 44 of us, for over 7 months. Sure, we have a few hours of internet each day and phone calls are relatively easy, but it’s still isolating. Topics for dinner conversations have run their course. Punctuated by long moments of silence our dialogue flows seamlessly from news of a bill in congress to the state of the bathrooms someone House Moused on Monday to the wind speed forecast for next week to the details of designing space suits for “biological functions”…
In 2008, Daniel Zwerdling of NPR interviewed several Polies who had wintered-over in previous seasons. It’s interesting and the last bit is dead on…it’s August, “Angry August” as it’s often known, or “Apathetic August” as some people have started calling it this year. As Zwerdling notes more than once in the interview a sense of camaraderie has developed, however I’m beginning to feel a bit toast myself. Some days the idiosyncrasies of my fellow winter-overs get under my skin and I’m grateful that I’m the sole Wastie here – that I work alone. When it gets too much I can always go outside to deal with my triwalls and snow drifts in solitude, the immensity of the sky around me putting into perspective all the trials and tribulations that seem the world to us inside the station.
Medical researchers actually have a name for this. They call it T3 Syndrome, or as the polies put it, you’re toast. Studies at the pole show when you isolate a small group of people in a dark and freezing place, their body chemistry changes. They feel worn down, weepy, crabby. They sleep too much, or they don’t sleep at all. They turn on each other…People’s spirits get dark in the hear of winter
When the “Lord of the Flies” started to happen, it just kept going. Our two cooks couldn’t be in the same building together. You know, when the power plant goes down, you’re supposed to run towards it and help; some didn’t. So when that starts going down, then you start seeing the true inside of humans. I really thought that grown-up humans would rise to the challenge. That’s what I thought I would see when I signed up, and they don’t.
But then, the sun finally comes back. It jumps above the horizon in late September, and the polies realize they’ve made it. In fact, they formed tight bonds, and they say they see the world differently than they did before.
The recorded interview and full transcript can be found at: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=89967120
Another link worth checking out is the blog by the Doc at Dome C from 2012 – the whole blog is worth reading through, but this post in particular is about winter, darkness, and some of the physiological and psychological changes he noticed: http://scientistatwork.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/09/06/lost-in-time-in-the-antarctic-ice-age/?_r=0
More information on Polar T3 Syndrome and a study that was done on the ice a few years back: http://www.spaceref.com/news/viewpr.html?pid=15478
Details of the official Palinkas study: http://www.nsf.gov/pubs/1999/nsf98106/98106htm/nsf98106h2.html
It’s late August already, and most of us here are showing at least a few signs of being toast…Ultimately though, we’ve made it through the darkest hours, days, weeks, and months – there is a glow on the horizon.
It’s incredibly powerful – this undeniable evidence that the sun will return. It sounds absolutely crazy, but for a while it seemed like we would be stuck here forever, windows covered, with only the cold black outside and the same 44 people driving each other nuts inside. But there’s a glow, a pre-dawn hint of light and I know the sun will rise, the temps will warm, the planes will come eventually, and before we know it winter will be over.
“The offing was barred by a black bank of clouds, and the tranquil waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth flowed somber under an overcast sky–seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness.” -Conrad
“We are not conscious of daylight as that which displaces darkness. Daylight, even when the sun is clear of clouds, seems to us simply the natural condition of the earth and air…We take daylight for granted. But moonlight is another matter. It is inconstant. The full moon wanes and returns again. Clouds may obscure it to an extent to which they cannot obscure daylight…We need daylight and to that extent it is utilitarian, but moonlight we do not need. When it comes, it serves no necessity. It transforms…” – Watership Down
We’ve passed the darkest point and ever so slowly the sun is returning. Astronomical Twilight! Or so they say…with the 35kt winds and cloudy skies we’ve had this past week it’s as dark as ever.
We haven’t seen the sun for over three months now; the darkness only broken by the moon which rises every two weeks illuminating the polar plateau in a wash of silvery light. When full it’s bright enough to cast stark shadows, but when it sets again we are plunged into the deepest of dark. With the stars hidden by clouds it’s utter pitch black – without a headlamp you can’t see a thing. For this reason DZ is illuminated by 6 bright red lights, as are some of the other out buildings used for navigation in the dark. White lights are forbidden (except in an emergency) as they interfere with some of the research projects monitoring the sky. Equipment, headlamps, any lights outside are covered with red cellophane or paint, and lights in general are kept to a minimum.
The lack of sunlight can be depressing and the dark when the moon sets can be challenging to be sure, but when the moon sets and the clouds clear the sky is phenomenal. The stars are bright, the Milky Way a clear slash of light through the velvety sky (see the two pictures below – both 30 sec exposures). The redness of Rigel is visible. It’s awesome in the truest sense of the word. Galaxies, stars, the dark “coal sack”, planets, satellites flying at just the right angle reflect the sun in a bright burst – iridium flares. Not to mention auroras.
Pictures from back home with sunlight and shadows, trees, grass, large bodies of liquid water, white fluffy clouds, people in shorts…animals…it’s starting to feel like a different world, a dream. I remember the warmth of sunlight on my skin. Here at the South Pole there is only one sunrise and one sunset in a year. Watching movies, it seems strange to see the sun rising and setting every day. An excessive number of sunrises and sunsets!
The days are blurring together, the weeks blending into one long stretch. I wake up and have to think about what day it is…what month…is it time to get up? Is it the middle of the night? Or did I sleep past my alarm? It’s always dark outside, always cold and even inside there’s not much more variation, it’s the same people doing the same thing day after day after day.
I haven’t completely lost sight of the beauty this place has to offer – auroras and star filled skies contrast with warm stormy days, projects and parties…I know however tired I am now, however much I yearn to leave this place, I will miss it the moment I leave. It brands the soul.
Like life aboard ships or submarines, routine anchors us in some form of sanity. Some people (researchers mostly) “free-cycle,” sleeping when they’re tired and working all night sometimes to end up on a 28hr day, others follow the satellite passes which advance every day by 4 minutes. Most of us are paid however, to work regular hours from 7am-5pm. It’s important for me to have a regular schedule. A typical day for me begins with my alarm at 6:00am. I eat breakfast in the galley, go to stretching from 7-7:30am, check my email, do my ‘rounds’ in which I check all the trash cans and recycling bins in the station, head outside to check my triwalls at DZ, setting up new ones and banding full ones as necessary then lunch from 12-1pm. After lunch it’s on to odd jobs like taking fluorescent bulbs out to my box on the berms, collecting used batteries, staging empty drums or moving full ones, organizing and scanning hazardous waste paperwork, editing the waste SOP. At 500pm we’re done for the day and most days I workout. Dinner from 6-630 then a movie, a card game, scrabble, maybe a lecture if one’s being presented. On Wednesdays I shower, and then to bed between 10-11pm. We get Sundays off.
Insomnia, or “big eye” is a common problem. For me personally it seems to take forever to fall asleep, but then I feel I could sleep for days. As the season progresses I start to feel tired all the time, more tired when I wake up than when I went to sleep. It doesn’t help that with no sunlight there’s no way of knowing what time of day it is. On Sundays I wake thinking it must be 7am or maybe 8 and I might get to sleep some more, but my watch shows 1130! Even with a regular schedule it can get slightly disorienting at times. Some people here use full-spectrum “happy” lights, others take vitamin D supplements. The greenhouse is a sanctuary of light, life, humidity, and oxygen. Just sitting in there for a few minutes is rejuvenating.
The station windows (42″x42″ or 42″x18″) are blocked with cardboard to prevent light pollution and to insulate against the cold. As progressive as this station might be they installed metal window frames which have proven to be huge heat sinks. These window covers go up right around sunset and are taken down around sunrise. While some are plain old triwall cardboard, others have become works of art: