In unthinkably cold conditions deep in Antarctica, an astrobiologist called Cyprien Verseux is seemingly peckish. So, holding some cooking utensils and ingredients, he decides to whip up a snack for himself. But, as it happens, he’s actually on a mission to show the world how tough life here can truly be.
Of all the Earth’s continents, Antarctica is the driest of them all. Most of it is a polar desert; incredibly, only 7.9 inches of rain falls along the landmass’ coastline each year, and even less pours down over its central regions. Conditions, therefore, are tough – and that’s to say nothing of the bitter chill.
During its colder periods of the year, temperatures in Antarctica typically fall to around -81 degrees Fahrenheit. Yet thermal readings as low as -135.8 have also been recorded. And in terms of its landmass, around 98 percent of it is blanketed by ice over 1.2 miles in thickness on average.
As this extreme weather implies, living conditions in Antarctica can be notoriously difficult to survive in. But that’s not to say that the continent is incapable of supporting any lifeforms at all. In fact, a whole host of bacteria, plants and even animals call the place their home; such as mites, seals and penguins.
Furthermore, up to 5,000 people can be found in Antarctica over the course of a given year. These people – of which Cyprien Verseux is just one – come from 28 countries across the globe to perform scientific experiments within the context of the continent’s unique conditions. But such experimentation, of course, comes at a cost. Indeed, some of the simplest tasks a person can undertake can become unmanageable.
So what led Verseux to be stationed in such an inhospitable environment? The answer, of course, lies in the nature of his profession. As he described to Scribol, “… I develop biological life-support systems for future missions to Mars, which should help future astronauts there live from what they find on site, rather than [having to] bring all [the required] consumables from Earth.”
Verseux’s aspiration to help humans sustainably live on Mars once steered him to become part of a rather immersive experiment. The Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation (HI-SEAS) study saw Verseux and five others living inside a small dome on the island. Here, these people performed – and were the subject of – experiments.
For the project, Verseux and his colleagues lived as if they were actually based on the Red Planet. He told Scribol, “We were living as pioneers on Mars: eating rehydrated food, having no direct communication… with anyone outside, and never leaving the dome without a spacesuit and accurately documented plans.”
Of course, the scientists inside this dome were each undertaking research based within their individual areas of speciality. For Verseux specifically, this meant microbiology in relation to space. However, in addition to their own work, the experts themselves were the subject of study, with their physical and mental conditions inside the dome being monitored.
Such an isolating experience inside this dome could be considered practice for what was to come for Verseux. And some time after he had left the dome, he was ready for a new challenge; so he submitted an application to spend some time at the Concordia Research Station.
Situated two miles above the sea on the Antarctic Plateau, the Concordia Research Station started operating in 2005. The base is managed by both France – through the French Polar Institute (IPEV) – and Italy – through its National Antarctic Research Program (PNRA). And experts conduct research there across the entirety of a year.
Over the course of a winter at Concordia, the scientists based there are left in seclusion from the rest of the world. Nobody can travel to or away from the station, and the place is ordinarily consumed by darkness. As such, it can be a difficult environment to live in.
Such specific conditions have led to some interesting research being undertaken at Concordia. For instance, the state of isolation and restriction that those based there experience is similar to what an astronaut might experience during a long spaceflight. As such, the development of medicines to counter the associated negative effects of such travel can be explored here.
The environment around Concordia is particularly suitable for undertaking astronomical investigations; after all, the prevalence of clouds in the sky above the station tends to be quite low. And in a similar vein, the general atmosphere of the area is quite clear, given the low levels of dust and aerosols.
All in all, a variety of different experts undertake work within their respective fields at Concordia. But one area of study which isn’t necessarily suitable here is biology. After all, flora and fauna are generally unable to survive so far inland in Antarctica.
But let’s return to Cyprien Verseux, who was keen to get involved in the fascinating research at Concordia. To do this, he set about applying to the relevant authorities, seeking to set up shop at Concordia for a summer as a biologist. He was subsequently given the green light to go there – and for far longer than just a summer.
Regarding his application, Verseux told Scribol, “I knew it was a shot in the dark: there is no room for a biologist there as, beyond the occasional extremophilic microbe, nothing naturally lives there. But I was lucky enough that my application was seen by a lab focused on glaciology, who offered me to go there… for the whole year, including [winter].”
So in January 2018 Verseux set out for Antarctica and, ultimately, the Concordia Research Station. Here, he was set to take on the role of a glaciologist, studying the snow and atmosphere of the area. As he explained to Scribol, “The overall goal was to help understand [the] Earth’s climate.”
Verseux was by no means alone at Concordia; joining him were colleagues who each had their own individual goals and aspirations. Experts were there studying meteorology, human psychology, magnetism, astronomy and much more. Elsewhere, the station was also home to a mechanic, a plumber, a computer specialist and a cook.
During the summer months at Concordia, people can come and go to the station by airplane. However, during the long winter – from around February to November – air travel is impossible. And so the people based at the station are forced to stay there, completely isolated from the outside world.
Verseux explained to Scribol how this seclusion impacted him and his colleagues during what he called a “winterover.” He said, “Your crewmates are the only people you will see for nine months, whatever happens. As weeks go by, you form some sort of micro-society with its own rules, memorable events and values. Until a plane can land, this community has to be self-sufficient.”
During a winterover, Concordia crews have to make do with the equipment and food that are already there. In other words, the station won’t be restocked until the summer, thus reinforcing its isolation from the outside world. As Verseux put it, “It is pretty much like being on another planet, I would say. Concordia is a weird, hostile, desertic and isolated place, even by Antarctica standards.”
On top of the psychological stresses associated with isolation, winterover crews at Concordia also have to deal with extreme weather. Verseux explained, “[Antarctica] is the driest desert you can find, with relative humidity inside the base in the single digits; this causes bloody cracks in hands and lips, nosebleeds, and everything dryness-related.”
And the risks don’t end there, as Verseux explained, “During winter, especially when there is wind, any exposed skin can freeze within seconds. It becomes white, insensitive, and swollen and painful when you warm it up. [And] depending on how long it remains frozen, it can have long-lasting consequences.”
Furthermore, forget wrapping up to stave off the cold; it might not necessarily prevent the problem. Verseux told Scribol, “If you stay outside for a while, you can freeze even much-covered extremities, typically fingers. That is quite annoying when you are trying to do precise work.”
The ability to see is also compromised by the cold, with face masks becoming cloudy as a result of breath water vapor becoming frozen. Furthermore, as Verseux pointed out, “If you raise your mask to see clearly, then you are likely to freeze your temples or other parts of your face. And you sometimes end up not seeing much anyway, because ice forms and accumulates on your eyelashes.”
Simply put, life in the midst of the severe weather conditions around Concordia can be extremely tough. Scientists hoping to perform their duties there are faced with intense challenges that can be awkward to maneuver. So with this in mind, Verseux sought to illustrate these difficulties to the outside world.
Meals at Concordia tend to be prepared by a cook indoors; so Verseux and his colleague’s decision to whip up a feast outside was a little out of the ordinary. Rather, they were planning to take some snaps to show the world how difficult life in Antarctica could be.
The resulting photos captured by the two men were uploaded onto Verseux’s own blog, which is called Mars La Blanche. These pictures showed what happens when you prepare food in such severe cold; as you could imagine, it freezes over.
Verseux explained to Scribol his motivation for taking these photos and uploading them online. He said, “Temperatures can get so low here that numbers don’t mean much to people who have not been exposed to them. My crewmate Carmen Possnig and I thus decided to take those photos of frozen food to illustrate the cold in a more evocative way.”
The uploaded photographs present a variety of foodstuffs frozen in place by the cold. One set of images present a fork held rigid in the air by strands of rock-hard spaghetti. Another shows a spoon floating upon golden liquid, as if my magic. In actuality, of course, it’s being held in place by a frozen stream of honey.
Another batch of photos shows what happens when you crack an egg open in such unfathomably cold temperatures. Unable to even hit the frying pan entirely before freezing, the egg white remains stuck in place. At its top, the smashed shell and a large proportion of the yolk stay in the air.
As well as these images, Verseux and Possnig had more up their sleeves to illustrate the sheer cold within which they were based. With this in mind, they took a few more dramatic snaps from outside of Concordia; and like the food pictures, these encapsulated the harsh nature of their icy environment in a novel way.
Some of these photos present viewers with hot water being exposed to the extreme cold of Antarctica. As can be seen from the snaps, the scientists threw the water into the air – and it swiftly froze. Accompanying these images on Verseux’s blog is some text pointing out that hot water supposedly freezes quicker than cold. This, apparently, is down to something known as the Mpemba effect.
Though there’s a lack of scientific consensus surrounding the Mpemba effect, the impact of heat on the freezing of water has been noted as far back as Aristotle. But it wasn’t until the 1963 that the process of hot water apparently freezing faster than cold was got its name; referring to Tanzanian Erasto Bartholomeo Mpemba, who originally discovered the phenomenon.
On top of the freezing water photos, Verseux also uploaded a picture of what happens when a person blows bubbles. And he accompanied this image with some text describing the situation. Translated from French, he wrote, “[The bubbles] freeze almost instantly. Some burst… Others hold, continue to rigidify, and arise.”
As we can see from Verseux’s blog and the photographs he uploaded there, the man is eager for the world to know about Antarctica. And he has even gone a step further in his attempts to detail the place; to that end, he will be releasing his French-language book Un Hiver Antarctique in October 2019.
The author described his work to Scribol, saying, “In this book, I tell the story of our winterover, starting with the strange selection process and all the way through the end of the mission; including the science, the social aspects, the hardships and the great parts. It is a personal account, illustrated with numerous photos.”
But let’s return to Verseux’s time at Concordia, which came to an end in December 2018 after nearly a year there. And upon re-emerging back into society, he was struck by the things he had missed. He told Scribol, “A fun side effect… is that you don’t know anything about the new tunes, internet phenomena, books, or everyday technological innovations.”
Verseux continued, “Major news, in general, you read about [that] via emails, but minor news usually does not reach you. When you come out, you turn on the radio and discover [songs] which everyone else is already tired [of], [you] miss the context to understand most jokes, and don’t know any of the books on best-seller stands.” This, it seems, is just one of the many effects of living in total, icy isolation for almost an entire year.