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22 September 2016

Snow Cabin Fever: How Arctic Researchers Stay Sane

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Picture the scene - you haven't seen the sun in 2 months, the outdoor temperature has never risen above -25 in all that time, there's nothing but white in every direction, and you've only been interacting with the same group of about 20 people. Your contact with the outside world is limited, your sleep pattern is difficult to maintain and if you get even mildly sick, it's going to be a huge problem.

This is the life of an Arctic researcher, bundled into a research station for months at a time under such conditions, tasked with operating their brain at maximum capacity for much of that time. As you might expect, stories of people losing the plot are numerous, but equally, Arctic research is a largely successful practice, and most researchers are able to get through their tours without tearing all their hair out or running out into the snow and trying to attract the nearest polar bear.

That isn't to say that it's just a case of keep calm and carry on, researchers have had to develop ways to keep themselves levelheaded out there in the wilderness. Obviously it depends heavily on the person. Some people can just bury themselves in work, others can feed off of the energy of social interaction, but some people will inevitably become withdrawn, depressed or even hostile.

When that happens, even the smallest disagreement has the potential to, well, snowball. Did you know that chess is banned in Russian research stations? Well it is, and that's because in 1959 a game ended with the loser taking an axe to the winner, fatally. That's an extreme example, granted, but seemingly trivial disputes which escalate are far harder to resolve in an isolated environment. If you've ever lived in student housing you'll probably have a good idea of what I'm talking about.

Well, one of the most direct solutions is to be as socially active as possible. Many stations have sports teams, film nights, board game nights and any other activities that might spur the general population into interacting more, and maybe getting on a little better. There is one particular activity, however, that seems to be very common in research stations, and that fact alone suggests that morale is actually pretty good - there's a lot of sex.

McMurdo Station (via
In 2008, word got out that the Antarctic station of McMurdo (which at the time had 125 residents) took delivery of some 16,500 condoms. Researchers and workers who are stationed in the Arctic or Antarctic through the long night are often tested for STIs ahead of time, and even married individuals will take 'ice husbands' or 'ice wives' for the duration of their stay.

One can see how this might cause problems, there's one particularly story about a man who was jilted by a paramour at a station, and then proceeded to make sure all the food was as disgusting as possible that every researcher knows. That being said, the risk of awkwardness is outweighed by the need to, ahem, blow off steam, and it's a damn sight better than turning to alcohol or drugs (although that happens too).

When the dark or light is perpetual, and you're not sleeping, but still having to spend an allocated amount of time in your bunk, what else are you supposed to do. Not to be crude, but I would imagine that masturbation is probably a pretty regular occurrence at stations too, but it would be difficult (and awkward) to gather any data on such a thing.

Moving on to somewhat less racy territory, the other major factor in maintaining Arctic morale is technology. Since the poles were connected to the world wide web, the people working there have been granted a far more reliable link to the outside world, enabling them to communicate with their families. Services like Skype, Facebook and even email are a godsend when your next door neighbours are over 1,000 miles away.

More recently, new developments have opened up fascinating possibilities. Virtual reality is of particular interest. If you've ever seen Star Trek: The Next Generation, you'll remember the holodeck, a room on the Enterprise which could virtually simulate any environment and situation you care to name. It was a way for the crew of the ship to overcome the loneliness of space, in whatever way they saw fit. Similarly, there's talk of using VR headsets and other adjacent gear to create immersive environments, so that researchers and other workers can take a little vacation from the ice. It sounds silly, but it could work wonders.

For the time being though, the most effective approach seems to be careful monitoring, and therapy. Research teams will often bring a psychologist or other kind of mental health specialist along, and they will keep careful track of things, even checking diaries and offering cognitive behavioral therapy. The most important thing is not to let mental health issues interfere with memory, concentration and all the other traits which are imperative to doing this kind of work effectively.

Callum Davies

Callum is a film school graduate who is now making a name for himself as a journalist and content writer. His vices include flat whites and 90s hip-hop.