How to

17 October 2016

Arctic Adjustments and ‘Getting Toasty’

If you ever hear Arctic researchers talk about their time out there, they will often use the term ‘on the ice’. All industries have their nomenclature, amateur theatre is ‘amdram’, coiling up an electric cable is called ‘bashing’, unedited film footage is either called ‘rushes’ or ‘dailies’, depending on where you are, but with the Poles, there’s another layer to it.

Note how basic and easy to understand ‘on the ice’ is, this is the case with a lot of the terminology you hear at research stations. Some of them are a bit more like slang, but still not hard to figure out. A ‘snotstickle’ for example, is frozen snot. There’s one particular term that related directly to why people on the ice might prefer to keep things simple – ‘getting toasty’.

Have you never gotten halfway through a sentence, only to discover that you can’t remember where it was heading? Have you ever walked into a room and forgotten why you went in there in the first place? Well, on the ice, this happens all the time, and these are symptoms of what’s known as ‘getting toasty’.

It tends to describe researchers who have been out there a little bit too long, to the point where it has made them forgetful, lethargic, withdrawn and often seen staring blankly into space. Now, you might argue that those are all symptoms of a far more well-known condition – cabin fever, and that anyone who spends an extended period in an isolated environment is susceptible to it.

Well, getting toasty is unique, in so far that it’s directly linked to a real, diagnosable (if not fully understood) condition – Polar T3 syndrome. T3 and T4 are hormones produced by the thyroid gland, and T3 is the more active of the two. Studies have shown that people who spend long periods in the Arctic have altered levels of T3, which could itself lead to cognitive impairment, mood swings or even a fugue state. T3 and T4 both have active roles in keeping you warm, so it stands to reason that time in the coldest place on Earth would alter their production rates.

What we don’t know is why being on the ice should change the way our thyroid produces hormones, but it’s thought to have something to do with the cold. So is this the cause of getting toasty? It could certainly be a contributing factor, but it’s unlikely to be the sole cause. More likely, getting toasty is the result of a combination of different things, from the isolation to the perpetual light/darkness to the confined amount of human interaction.

We’ve talked before about the things people do on the ice to preserve their sanity, and one of them is adjusting to your brain functioning in a fundamentally different way. There isn’t all that much point in trying to staple known scientific terms to it, because all you can really do once you’re actually out there is deal. What’s important is that researchers (or ‘Polies’) recognise the condition in their colleagues and make sure they’re taken care of.

The basic terminology is actually one way of coping, it stops the brain from stretching itself too much trying to remember the proper words for things, as well as creating an extra layer of camaraderie. Most important is the realisation that as much as the ice might feel comfortable, and familiar, it’s not home, and it never will be. For a more detailed account of ‘getting toasty’, straight from the mouths of the people who have to deal with it, listen to this episode of The Allusionist podcast.

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.