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Weather conditions in Antarctica are the harshest in the world. Imagine wind chills that freeze exposed skin in seconds, blizzards that reduce visibility to a few feet, months of darkness, and seemingly endless expanses of featureless snow and ice. For the early explorers and expeditioners, survival in Antarctica meant a constant struggle against the elements, a struggle which resulted in many paying the ultimate cost.
Even today, for an extended journey in Antarctica to succeed, proper equipment and preparation, strong leadership, excellent navigational skills, mental and physical fortitude, and luck are all required. To journey beyond the confines of protective structures means battling the weather on its own terms, and realizing that mistakes can lead to frostbite, hypothermia and death. On land, paying attention to developing weather conditions is a way of life for land-based researchers! At sea, mountainous waves, gale force winds, freezing spray, jagged icebergs and crushing pack-ice are ever-present hazards.
Robert F. Scott's 1912 trip back from the South Pole is a harrowing tale.
As winter approached, Scott and his men ran into terrible blizzards which sapped their strength and forced them to ration their food supplies. As starvation and frostbite took its toll, winter set in.
Scott wrote, "Amputation is the least I can hope for" and, "We shall stick it out until the end but we are getting weaker, of course, and the end cannot be far."
Scott and his companions were found eight months later frozen to death.
Survival on Land
At Antarctic research stations outside activities are directly dependent upon weather conditions, which are divided into three different categories, based on the level of severity. Even at a permanent base, people don't venture outside for any reason during the most severe conditions, such as wind chills below -120°F or during a blizzard, when blowing snow obscures visibility so much that the next building over becomes invisible!.
Field parties are equipped with special clothing designed to withstand the extreme conditions of Antarctica. Yet, even the best of clothing is no substitute for common sense; constant vigilance must be maintained against snowblindness, frostbite or hypothermia. As conditions can deteriorate rapidly, research scientists heading out to do field work carry emergency equipment, such as sleeping bags, radios, stoves, tents, food, and other supplies, even if they are only out on a day trip. Though it might not keep the parties comfortable in horrible weather, it could mean the difference between life and death.
Before researchers and support personnel are allowed to travel to remote sites or onto the sea ice, they must pass a survival training course. Teams based at a permanent research station such as McMurdo are required to check out when leaving the station and check in again upon return. At remote field camps failure to radio the base station at specified intervals can result in search and rescue missions being initiated.
Survival At Sea
The waters around Antarctica are reputed to be some of the most violent on Earth. Winds circle unobstructed around the continent, whipping up huge waves and causing, at the very least, ship-wide stomach upheavals. Safety is a big issue for researchers and passengers aboard Antarctic vessels. When seas are too rough, deck operations shut down until conditions improve. Equipment not fastened down can be hurled across a room or thrown overboard. Even during more benign conditions, people working near the sides of the ship are required to wear flotation gear and special clothing designed to keep them from quickly freezing to death should they end up in the water. Safety lines are often required.
Sea ice is a hazard unique to polar seas. Icebergs must be avoided as even small pieces of ice are capable of damaging equipment or jolting passengers. In addition, Antarctic ships are frequently at risk of entrapment in swift-moving pack ice. A sudden wind change can cause seemingly open pack ice to rapidly enclose a ship. Many an expedition vessel has met its fate as a result of being trapped and crushed by the immense pressure of wind-driven ice.
Most expeditioners travel during the Antarctic summer, where they can expect temperatures in the -40 to -50° F range with wind speeds of 30 to 50 miles per hour. The resulting wind chills will average around -100°F.
Like everyone, expedtioners are faced with meeting their basic needs: shelter from the elements, water, clothing, and food. Expedition tents must be able to withstand the onslaught of wind and blowing snow. Sleeping bags must provide waterproofness, insulation, and breathability. Reliable cooking appliances are needed to melt snow and cook food. All Antarctic explorers are faced with the task of eating enough of the right foods to fuel themselves and keep warm, so adequate food supplies are essential. As for clothing, modern fabrics go a long way toward shielding the wearer from the harsh Antarctic weather. Today's expeditioners incorporate a system of breathable underlayers, heavily insulated middle layers, and weatherproof outerlayers.
A constant concern to the Antarctic explorer or research scientist is hypothermia -- a life-threatening condition brought on by the lowering of body temperature. Cold, wind and wet conditions chill the body so that it loses heat faster than it produces it. Hypothermia is the most common cause of death in any cold weather survival situation. Even a one or two degree drop in core temperature can become serious due to a loss of logical reasoning ability. Many hypothermia victims are unaware of the danger signs early enough to take effective action. This is why prevention of hypothermia is so important.
The human body can lose heat in many ways and conditions such as wind, moisture, cold, hunger and dehydration can promote heat loss. However, the greatest single factor in becoming hypothermic is improper preparation.
"Antarctica is the coldest, highest, windiest, driest, and iciest continent on earth"
Coldest: -129° F at Vostok, July 21, 1983 (World low temperature record.)
Highest: Average elevation 8200 feet (2500 meters).
Windiest: Gales reach 200 mph on Commonwealth Bay, George V coast.
Driest: Average precipitation is less than 2 inches per year.
Iciest: The thickest ice found is in Wilkes Land, where it reaches a depth of 15,669 feet (4,776 meters ).
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