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Winter at the South Pole: the final frontier

Dr Alexander Kumar in Antarctica

King’s alumnus Dr Alexander Kumar FRGS (Medicine, 2008) has spent the majority of 2012 in the relentlessly icy grip of the Antarctic. As part of his research for the European Space Agency, Dr Kumar is finishing a year at the Concordia Research Station looking at how human physiology and psychology respond to the extreme isolation and environments of the Antarctic. The findings are hoped to provide an insight into how the human mind and body will cope with the extreme conditions of a manned spaceflight mission to Mars.  

Whilst living on the ice Dr Kumar has been working with UK based extreme physiologist and endurance explorer Dr Mike Stroud OBE to create the ‘White Mars Analogue Study.’ This is part of the science programme on the Standard Chartered Trans-Antarctic Winter Traverse (TAWT) led by veteran explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes. The TAWT expedition aims to collect scientific data as it conquers the last great polar challenge: the first ever attempted winter crossing of Antarctica.

‘As one of the most extreme environments on the planet, Antarctica provides the closest experience we can achieve on Earth to living on the surface of another planet,’ explains Dr Kumar.

The Centre of Human & Aerospace Physiological Sciences at King's College London is hosting the White Mars study. 'We are responsible for overseeing and providing an academic hub for the human sciences components of the expedition and plan to undertake a detailed physiological characterisation of the trekkers before they depart from the UK,' explains Professor Steve Harridge, Director of the Centre.

Dr David Green, Lecturer in Human and Aerospace Physiology at King's, adds, 'We have a number of projects looking at how their [the trekkers'] sensory systems are affected by exposure to the harsh conditions and the cold damage that is likely to result. This will help to inform our understanding of some processes we see in astronauts during extra vehicular activity.'

One of the only spaceflight conditions White Mars cannot study is zero gravity. However, as Dr Kumar explains, ‘The Polar Regions have been used successfully as space analogue environments for many years and human sciences research on TAWT could be the most useful and reliable Mars Analogue study to date.’ Similarities between the conditions likely to be experienced in both environments provide Dr Kumar and colleagues with four main extremes to study during the Antarctic crossing:

  • Isolation: The TAWT expedition aims to take place from March to September 2013 with no opportunity for evacuation from this endlessly threatening environment. The team will therefore be completely self-sufficient and alone on the ice for seven to nine months of ‘real’ isolation.
  • Loss of day/night cycle: The Antarctic winter will subject the team to three to four months of complete darkness. This will allow Dr Kumar and colleagues to research disruption to the rhythms of the body’s 24 hour clock.
  • Low oxygen levels: The team will have to adapt to low oxygen levels as they cross areas at altitudes of 3200 metres. The extreme cold and distance from the equator will reduce the oxygen levels even further.
  • Extreme cold: TAWT team members will cross the Antarctic Plateau, the largest and coldest desert in the world. This will subject them to prolonged periods below -70oC.

Six individuals, lead by Sir Ranulph Fiennes, will make the crossing. A doctor on board will be responsible for conducting the White Mars experiments on the team; collecting and preserving samples of blood, microbiological swabs, urine and faeces. In addition to providing remote assistance and support, Dr Kumar and Dr Stroud will analyse the samples to assess changes to the immune system, cardiovascular system, breathing, gene function, nutrition, bone density, the disruption to sleep patterns, and overall psychological stress and behavioural changes. 

Professor Harridge explains why this is such a valuable opportunity and unique human challenge, 'It pushes the limits of physical and mental endurance. It is in some senses the ultimate field experiment, and an opportunity to learn more about the limits of human performance, which of this type, and for obvious reasons, come around very rarely.'

 

The TAWT expedition will leave the UK for Antarctica on 6 December. For more information visit www.thecoldestjourney.org

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