Peter Davis is a physical oceanographer working with the Polar Oceans group at the British Antarctic Survey.
Have you spent the last two months confined to the same, small environment? Has your personal contact become limited to a small number of people? Are you suddenly baking bread to supplement your unusual diet? If so, you may in fact have been experiencing some of what life is like for an Antarctic field scientist.
Working far from the permanent bases scattered around Antarctica’s shoreline provides a unique opportunity to experience the wonders of the most remote continent on this planet: the silence, the wildlife, the absence of any permanent human population. Life on a field camp is paced by the weather, which changes rapidly from blinding sunshine and crystal-clear skies to howling winds and blowing snow. We work when the weather is good and rest up when it is bad. Weeks no longer have meaning, as weekdays, weekends and even holidays merge into one. Because of these frequent weather delays and the time it takes simply to get to Antarctica, we can be away for months on end. But we don’t think about the end point; our focus only extends as far as today or tomorrow. Only once the science is done will we start thinking about our return home.
This is a job in which one must accept near total isolation from normal everyday life. Communications are largely limited to text-based e-mails and only 30 minutes a week of conversation on a crackly satellite phone. There is no Skype, no WhatsApp, no Facebook. Forget about seeing your friends and family, it can be a struggle just to keep in touch with them. During spells of bad weather, you can be confined to your tent for days on end with only your tent mate for company. Entertainment is restricted to whatever books or films you have brought with you. Managing your relationship with those you are confined with is key to maintaining a harmonious atmosphere.
Something that differentiates Antarctic isolation from our current situation, however, is that the former is a choice, one for which there is plenty of time to prepare. In amongst the packing and the practical preparations made before heading south, your last few weeks at home are spent seeing friends and family and saying goodbye. Is it not always easy, especially as you are acutely aware how much you will miss, since life for others does not get put on hold while you are away. The festive period is particularly tough, and despite your family’s best intentions on your return, Christmas in spring just isn’t the same.
An obvious question, one that I am frequently asked, is why. Why would anyone voluntarily put themselves through so much to work in Antarctica? Beyond the obvious answers surrounding the importance of climate-change research and the need to better understand our planet’s environment, on a personal level, I can honestly say that I have benefitted from the many positive experiences to be taken from the isolation found in this remote continent. The importance of simple things that I take for granted back home become magnified, and I appreciate them all a lot more. A freshly prepared meal shared with colleagues over Christmas or newly baked bread are gastronomic delights in comparison to the dehydrated rations that we otherwise live on. The joy felt when a small supply of fresh food arrives unexpectedly: fruit, vegetables and sometimes even frozen cheese. In bad weather, the period spent confined to my tent allows me time to think on what I value most in life. I have the space to reflect on how I lose sight of these values amid everyday distractions back at home. While sometimes hard to bear, the distance from friends and family and our more limited communication paradoxically draws me closer to them, a closeness that remains once I am back home.
Returning to our current isolation, my advice would be not to focus on when normal life will resume. Instead, confident in the knowledge that it will, we should focus on the positive experiences that can be taken from this situation. Appreciate what and who it is that we miss most, and think of ways to ensure that we don't lose sight of these things when the restrictions are lifted. Isolation is never easy, but much of what can be gained from this time will remain with us long after the lockdown has ended.
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