Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Concordia Base Log
By: Adrianos Golemis, ESA research MD

Time:  L+258 (July 2014)
Temperature: -63˚C
Week: 38
Sunlight: Faint glow below the horizon
Morale: With a lot of changes…

Log Entry #15 – The Highs and the Lows

Life at Concordia is not always perfect.

That much you can picture by reading any book concerned with life in extreme conditions, isolation and confinement in particular. After 9 months surrounded by ice, I can tell that there is a difference between reading about it and living it. The highs and the lows, both are now not distinct situations that you try to imagine as you flip through the pages of a scientific magazine, but rather personal experiences.

If you live in the same few square meters even with your best friends for one year, you are bound to feel some friction at times. We do our best to avoid that and respect each other’s personal habits, space and individuality. Yet at some occasions this becomes increasingly difficult if ones considers the other adverse effects of Concordia’s environment.

Ϡ Riuichi Sakamoto, “Forbidden Colours”:

The continuous night does not seem to have such a significant direct effect on us, but then again there are days that you wake up in a grim mood. More important probably is the influence that lack of sleep has on our everyday life. Due to the severe lack of humidity, low pressure as well as circadian desynchronization, we all experience some varying difficulty in falling asleep or maintaining sleep for a normal duration. Instead for a period of a few weeks it was common for some crewmemebers to wake up a multitude of times or be completely unable to rest. If this form of insomnia is sustained for a few days, you can find yourself somewhat more irritable than usual.

Another effect one might notice is that around the middle of the 3-month long night it is generally more difficult – mentally – to complete tasks or take initiatives. Perhaps this is because external stimulation is minimal and indeed a simple walk to the park could seem like an oasis of sensations that we miss (smell, colors, natural sounds, scenery) and which could easily rekindle our interest in small or greater errands. Unfortunately, for the time being, we cannot entertain this possibility.

Naturally, we try to develop “countermeasures” to deal with these circumstances. Talking problems through usually proves effective. To counter the lack of external stimuli, we try to celebrate every occasion, such as birthdays or national holidays. Midwinter (21st of June, winter solstice) was a monumental occasion on which all Antarctic Stations go on vacation to enjoy what marks the middle of our stay in isolation. Bases exchange international wishes for a happy second half and organize each a few events and happenings. If you endure half, the other half is just counting backwards…

Pictures #65 and 66: Celebrating Easter – Easter eggs painted by Igor and me, with accompanying wish card.

Yet it would be erroneous to depict our current situation as a miserable one. Life in isolation can help you to deeply understand the challenges, but also familiarize with techniques to endure and cope with them. And on top of that, there are always very pleasant surprises. And small, unique things to enjoy.

For example, static electricity due to extreme dryness is a constant annoyance here. But one funny thing that always beguiles me is sparkles in the night. Indeed it is very irritating to feel a little burn every time you touch a surface around you (especially if you wear a lot of clothing). But it is equally amusing to spot the sparkles of static electricity on your blanket as you switch off the lights and get in bed every night: You cover yourself and the simple touch of the blanket as you pull it over you creates little lights, strong enough to illuminate the space around you for a portion of a second. Almost like fireflies playing around your room. A good substitute, since we haven’t seen an insect of any kind for the better part of a year!

When I find it impossible to sleep in the night, one of my favorite occupations is night raids! This basically means that two or three of us creep in the kitchen and enjoy some after-midnight snack or drink. It is a funny activity and a relaxing one. Our midnight company was particularly active during the football World Cup (which we could not really view due to internet limitations, but watching the scores was fun).

Sleep is a frequent conversation topic that we engage in daily. It’s almost like asking “how are you”? Other than that we do occasionally speak about events in the outside world, like the results of the European elections, or about more personal matters.

Pictures #67 and 68: Playing team games and enjoying intercultural dinners – in this case, Mexican.

As said, birthdays are important incidents to refresh us, with our chef, Giorgio, meticulously preparing a special dish, while members of the technical team always come up with an interesting, handmade gift.

Picture #69 (left): Enjoying my handmade Antarctic ESA rocket – compliments to my colleagues at Concordia! Picture #70 (right): Midwinter vacation at its prime – Game of Thrones themed dinner [Credits T. Ceraolo].

Life in the base might generally appear to be very monotonous to outsiders – and at times, it can be. Originally this lack of external stimulation is pleasant because you find some time to do all the things that you always had in mind but never dedicated an evening to. You will read that book that was progressively collecting dust in your upper shelf and complete tasks that the hustle and bustle of metropolitan life never allowed you to. Yet, after a few months, the excitement that you draw from them will slowly be depleted. It is at this point that an entirely new activity might help you carry on smoothly. In the same books that describe isolation psychology, one can read also about the phenomenon of salutogenesis. It is the positive effects that a special experience can have on the human body and mind, even on health. For example, astronauts go through this when they view the Earth – the entirety of our world – from space. For us here photography – and especially of the skies – seems to have a similar result.

With the excuse of having to adjust the camera box and tripod usually placed at the roof of the Station, I was motivated to exit the base many more times than I used to, especially in the night. This had an invigorating effect on me. It’s amusing to see Orion “upside down” time and again. When you go out, the psychedelic embrace of the Night is always unique. You never grow tired of that as you exit the hatch at the roof of Concordia to position the specially modified frost-resistant camera and capture a portion of the celestial orb’s magnificence.

Ϡ Wishbone Ash, “Persephone”:

You can hear only your respiration through the little breathing mask that partially prevents your visor from fog. Then you look around after closing the hatch… There is nothing. Only total darkness that devours you. For 1 or 2 seconds you feel alone and threatened. Perhaps some primordial reflex to darkness…

Then you raise your eyes and look up and you pinpoint three thousand little stitches in the sky. The Milky Way is very prominent. And gradually your eyes adjust to the dark. You start to feel the freezing winds creep inside your polar suit through the tiniest holes to burn your skin. But you feel content. Starlight is all that illuminates the infinite white of the plains around you. After all, let’s not forget that we live under the darkest, most pristine skies of our planet. Concordia could easily qualify as Night Capital.

Pictures #71 and #72: Our custom-made box, to insulate the camera and allow us to take photos outside.

As the days go by, slowly the Night recesses, giving more and more ground to the illuminating powers of the advancing Day. Actually today was the first time in four months that I woke up by the touch of morning light on my face.

Looking at the orange glow painting the horizon with colors again at midday generates a heart-lifting feeling. Still in the case of a few of us here, the day seems to be approaching too fast, gradually marking the end of our southernmost adventure. The feeling is bittersweet.

See you all soon and – for as long as it lasts – good night from Night Capital. ҉ 

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