Reportage

Close proximity

In her late twenties, Beth Healey flew to the end of the world. She lived in Antarctica in almost complete isolation for nine months with twelve strangers in the confined space of a research station. What was the experience like for her?

Text Jenni Roth  
Illustration Julian Rentzsch Photos ESA/IPEV/PNRA-B. Healey (tractor convoy, B. Healy, airplane, polar lights, maintenance antenna, lab samples, airplane, basketball) ESA/IPEV/PNRA–C. Possnig (sauna, library)

After her going-away party in the Ice Bar in London, Beth Healey sits on her bed. She pets her cat, feeling the soft fur running through her fingers. It’s the last evening before her trip. The last evening for a very long time when she will have her friends, her family and her cat nearby. Beth will spend a year without seeing a cat or any other animal, for that matter. No plants, no rivers, no lakes. A queasiness overcomes her: because of the loneliness, the isolation, because there will be no way out. What if everything starts closing in around her and gets too cramped? What if she gets homesick? The trip that Beth will be embarking upon the next morning is taking her to a place that is further from London than the International Space Station.

The last stop before her final destination is Christchurch, New Zealand. It’s the last chance to buy something, the last stop in civilization. Beth selects flip-flops, the best shoes for the research station. Then she climbs into a small plane, sitting next to the pilot in the cockpit, gazing down at the ocean and watching beneath her as the water gives way to a seemingly endless surface of ice.

The Antarctic is the Earth’s largest ice sheet, our planet’s last great wilderness. It’s larger than Europe and so hostile to life that hardly anyone lives there. It holds almost two thirds of the planet’s freshwater reserves. It also acts as a giant reflector, sending the energy of the sunlight that strikes it back into space. Without the Antarctic ice sheet, sea levels could rise up to twenty meters higher than today’s levels.

Beth, 29 years old, will be spending almost a year in this location, studying the effects of extreme conditions on the human body and psyche. She will record the processes that a permanently oxygen-poor environment can trigger in the human body. How people behave when they are cut off from the outside world for months at a time. What happens to a group of thirteen strangers who are trapped for weeks in a just a few dozen square meters of space.

Beth will be investigating all these things on behalf of the European Space Agency (ESA). Her results will serve to help prepare for future missions to Mars, which will have similar conditions. Of course, Beth isn’t just researching, she herself is part of the experiment. She will also be cut off from the rest of the world, marooned on an endlessly white, high plateau in the middle of Antarctica, in the thin, oxygen-deficient air, some 3,233 meters above sea level.

When the pilot begins the landing approach, Beth momentarily thinks it’s an emergency landing. But she soon realizes that of course there isn’t any runway, no streets, just a barren landscape. Nothing but ice. Beth had previously lived on Greenland for several months, but this is different. As the airplane’s door springs open, her lungs contract when she tries to breathe, her tears immediately crystallize, her nose hairs freeze. Scientists call this place “White Mars,” which makes sense since the people approaching her are wearing spacesuits—or at least it looks like they are.

 

 

NINE MONTHS WITH NO WAY OUT

Beth is petite, with delicate features. She packed a hairdryer for her long, dark-blonde hair and also an evening gown, high heels, makeup—a slice of normality. At the tender age of five, her father began taking her along on expeditions. They would spend the night in mountain huts, eating scrambled eggs cooked on the camp stove in the morning. Beth knew from an early age that she wanted to become an explorer. And that she loves a challenge.

The Concordia Research Station looks like two silos on stilts that were rammed into the ice. It’s located at a longitude of 123 degrees east and a latitude of 75 degrees south. The nearest coast is 950 kilometers away. There is a passageway that researchers use to get from one silo to the other without having to go out into the brutal cold of minus 80 degrees Celsius. If you were to crack an egg into a pan at that temperature, it would freeze before it could even spread out.

When Beth arrives at Concordia Station, it’s summer. There’s a lot going on. Research teams from around the world are here and, at a balmy minus 30 degrees Celsius, with the constant sunlight, they’re playing rugby. Soccer can’t be played because the cold pulls the bounce out of the ball. When the final plane takes off with the last summer guests four months later, things get quiet. Beth goes to her room and stares at the calendar above her bed: a sea of days before the next flight. For nine long months there’s no way to escape—at minus 80 degrees a helicopter can’t get off the ground and no plane can take off or land, not even in an emergency.

Winter constricts life at Concordia Station. Because the temperatures keep falling and the sun soon won’t even be rising, life gets whittled down into the combined 700 square meters of living space in the two, three-story towers. Beth watches how old hierarchies disappear—and new ones emerge. After a short time, the technical manager ascends to become a sort of group leader. Leaders become established even within the small research teams, depending on personality and function.

 

There are six French citizens spending the winter at the station, five Italians, a Swiss and Beth, the Brit, who will have to get used to the fact that it doesn’t necessarily mean anything when the Italians yell at each other. It certainly isn’t lonely in this isolation. “You’re sitting on top of one another, you can’t run away, personality traits get more extreme,” Beth says. She notices that when conflicts occur, more often than not triggered by trivialities, she tends to get quiet and avoid the confrontation. “She’s promoting group cooperation by doing that,” says Prof. Hanns-Christian Gunga, director of the space medicine and extreme environments working group at Charité Institute for Physiology in Berlin. His research has shown that certain personality traits are beneficial in dynamic group processes while others create tensions. Problematic traits include narcissistic structures, rigidity, an inability to compromise, and anger or even aggression at differences of opinion.

Beth even manages to remain calm when a team member keeps hiding her hat and gloves. “It’s difficult to openly deal with conflicts in such an environment,” she says. “Much of it takes place in a subtle way.” Beth doesn’t even bother to react to the provocation. “Then the other person gets bored with their little game,” she explains. Where there’s no way out, one tries to be more tolerant and forgiving.

Beth schafft es sogar, ruhig zu bleiben, als ein Teammitglied immer wieder ihre Mütze und Handschuhe versteckt. „Offen Konflikte auszutragen, ist in so einer Umgebung schwer“, sagt Beth. „Da läuft viel subtil.“ Die Forscherin reagiert gar nicht auf die Provokation. „Dann langweilt sich der andere mit seinem Spielchen“, sagt sie. Wo es keine Fluchtmöglichkeit gebe, versuche man, toleranter und nachsichtiger zu sein.

EXTREME PROXIMITY, EXTREME EFFECTS

Friendships and antipathies develop in fast forward in this extreme proximity. Everything just happens faster when you’re living so close together. Beth makes even more of an effort in the extreme situation, also out of sheer necessity. “Even with people with whom it otherwise would never have worked out,” she says. At the same time, Beth forms closer friendships with two crewmembers. “Nine months at Concordia are like nine years of everyday life.” But there are of course differences: a few begin sharing their most private stories after a few days, while another in the team is currently in the middle of breaking up with his girlfriend but doesn’t talk to anyone about it.

 

 

The longer Beth is at Concordia, the more insecure her dealings with the others become because it’s always the same people around her. Not to mention she’s feeling constantly watched. When a team member gives her a handful of blue M&M’s—she had told him about her fondness for the blue candies—the rumor mill immediately starts working overtime. The men at the station often behave in a particularly standoffish manner so that this type of gossip never gets off the ground. Drama-prone affairs are not a good idea in this sort of situation. “If you aren’t absolutely certain about your feelings in this isolation, you should let it be,” Beth explains. She isn’t tempted at all. On the one hand, there’s no one in the group that happens to be her type. On the other hand, she says, “I have a job to do here. I just ignore everything else.”

The ESA wants Beth to find out how isolation affects group dynamics. For this, everyone on the team is wearing a watch that measures their level of activity, heart rate and sleeping patterns as well as where the person is, who is with whom, and for how long. The recorded data will therefore say something about habits and how they change, whether the closeness tends to lead to isolation among the team members, whether they drag themselves to the fitness room or instead laze about eating chocolate. The study’s data is currently being evaluated.

What really affects the team’s mood, however, is the eternal night of winter. On one March day, the group watches the sun rise and set for the last time for almost the next four months. “One hundred and five days of darkness are brutal,” Beth says. She doesn’t sleep at all for the first four days and nights. Instead, she prowls through the station. Through the windows is nothing but darkness: no streetlights, no cars. “You feel cut off from the rest of the world. In this solitude is when you first realize how much the sun connects you to the world.” But when the Aurora australis, the polar lights flare up in the sky, their beauty brings back a bit of motivation.

 

Nonetheless, life on the station feels like one long continuous night shift. Light deprivation is also a part of Beth’s research; ESA wants to know how it influences sleeping rhythms and how special lighting conditions could promote normal sleep patterns during the winter months with their lack of sunlight or, perhaps later, for workers on the night shift or astronauts.

 

“IT’S LIKE LOOKING ONTO EARTH FROM SPACE”

Beth notices that she’s getting more and more lethargic. Eating becomes difficult for her. “It feels like you have to eat pasta at three in the morning.” Unfortunately, there’s nothing the crew’s Italian cook can do about it since there aren’t any fresh vegetables or fruit here at the end of the world. With each passing winter day, Beth is feeling increasingly like a subject in her own experiment—also with regard to the question of how the human immune system reacts to such extreme conditions. She collects blood, urine and saliva samples and compares them to the results from stress tests. Outwardly the effects on the crew can’t be missed at all—the team is becoming increasingly pallid. Like the others, Beth is also struggling to maintain her weight. The location alone, at over 3,000 meters above sea level, and any movement outside, heavily wrapped in protective gear to withstand minus 80 degrees of freezing cold—it all guzzles energy. “I had the feeling that my body was falling apart.”

Fortunately, Beth remains healthy. She even survives the “three-quarters syndrome” relatively unscathed. This is how researchers like Hanns-Christian Gunga describe the feelings of depression that increasingly crop up in the third quarter of this type of overwintering: “Up until the half-way point, you can create a perspective for yourself of having made it to the top of the hill. But once you’ve reached that milestone, many people fall into a sort of limbo of exhaustion—you’re still facing making it through the next very long half.”

 

SOMETHING LIKE EVERYDAY LIFE

SOMETHING LIKE EVERYDAY LIFE

Researchers at Concordia play basketball in the summer, while life gets compressed into the station’s interior during the winter. “Nine months at Concordia are like nine years of everyday life,” Beth says.

To ensure that her homesickness doesn’t get the upper hand, Beth tries not to video call with friends and family every day. Sometimes it did do good to take a mental break from the place for a few moments, but she doesn’t think it would have been a good idea to indulge too frequently. “If you don’t completely adapt to life on the station and remain very present in the moment here, it’s difficult to endure.” As a single woman, at least Beth doesn’t have a relationship she has to struggle to maintain. What she does miss are spontaneous meetings with friends in cafés or going to the supermarket after work. As Beth’s remaining time at Concordia continues to dwindle, she notices how much she’s become acclimated to being with people in such a small space. “You change during such a year,” she says. In retrospect, she compares her time on White Mars to a type of retreat. “You take a step back, it’s a little bit like looking down onto Earth from space. You definitely get a clearer view of what you want.”

And Beth Healey knows exactly what she wants: to go to space. When she talks with the crewmembers, with whom she remains special friends to this day, she knows that they understand her dreams. Until she heads into space, however, she continues to share an apartment in London with two friends. “I could never live alone,” she says, although it has little to do with her stay at Concordia Station. “You could probably never simulate that type of close proximity in England or France.”

 

winter is coming

winter is coming

The Antarctic winter is cold and long. For six months, night reigns at the South Pole while the thermometer sinks to minus 80 degrees Celsius.