October 6, 2008

Training For Antarctica Without Snow

A glacier hasn't been seen in England since the Ice Age. Ironically though, Antarctic scientists are gathering in a muddy field In Britain to study how to endure life on the world's coldest continent.

Living in tents and occasionally sharing the field with horses or geese from nearby farms, the scientists study skills such as igniting a frozen paraffin stove or dodging a crevasse.

Ever since the 1970s, the British Antarctic Survey has taught the majority of their staff here: cooks, pilots, mechanics, plumbers and even glaciologists.

In the three-day itinerary in Derbyshire, the standard daytime temperature is 59 degrees. It is the closest thing in England to temperatures at the ice-covered South Pole.

"We try to prepare people for life in Antarctica and some of the dangers," said Rod Arnold, a director at the British Antarctic Survey.

This includes rescuing an unconscious associate from a crevasse or working to remedy carbon monoxide poisoning from a stove.

Training includes wearing snow goggles obstructed by white tape and then proceeding to walk blind all the way attached to a rope to stimulate finding a person "lost in a snowstorm."

Approximately 40 people took the safety class, many of them scientists from the United States, Germany, France and Spain.

Antarctica is the world's most hostile continent, where Russia's Vostok station documented a temperature of minus 128 degrees, the chilliest recorded on earth.

Scientists spend weeks in isolated areas with only a single assistant, so it is imperative that they know how to stay alive.

"The climbing really helped," said Rebecca Rixon, a 22-year old doctoral student at England's Exeter University. She studied how to scale a rock formation on Derbyshire's Baslow Edge and to ascend the rope again, mimicking entering and exiting a crevasse.

"But it was weird doing it in the sunshine in England when in reality you'd be freezing cold," Rixon said. She will learn the connection between the ices breaking on the Antarctic Peninsula and in Scotland near the conclusion of the Ice Age about 10,000 years ago.

Several other areas that study Antarctica have glaciers where they can train.

The United States educates most of its employees at a "snow school" at the McMurdo base in Antarctica. This is the largest base on the continent, with a summer population of 1,000 inhabitants.

Visitors roaming outside McMurdo study "how to operate a stove, a radio, set up a tent, basic first aid -- such as recognizing and preventing hypothermia," stated Peter West of the U.S. National Science Foundation.

They also are trained to build a snow shelter and learn how to cut snow blocks to build walls, he said.

The British Antarctic Survey has a huge lab in Cambridge, where ice cores are maintained at minus 20 Celsius. Scientists labor in the room investigating the ice, but do not attempt to stay in the freezer.

So in England, students who want to study living in Antarctica have to do so without snow or ice. Many make the comparison that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin practiced for their 1969 moon landing in desolate Iceland.

Training is vital because Antarctica has taken many lives. Robert Falcon Scott and four other Britons died in 1912 coming home from the South Pole after Norwegian Roald Amundsen arrived before them by weeks to be the first adventurers to the South Pole.

"It helps people gain confidence before going south," Arnold said. "And you get to know people you may have to be with for up to two and a half years."


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