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Norwegian-American Scientific Traverse of East Antarctica


In good health?

by Ole Tveiten — sist endret 22.02.2009 - 22:53

The level of education is high on this traverse, and we have several doctors along. But there’s only one “doc”. Even though he has been quite busy in his job as field assistant to the other professionals, he has had little to do in his own field of work.

Location: 80º 15’ S,  4º 33’ E
Weather: Cloudless, visibility forever, -27 C, wind 6 kts

In earlier times scurvy was always a potential threat to polar expeditions due to lack of vitamin C.  Roald Amundsen compensated for this by taking along cloudberries on his 1911 expedition.  Otherwise weather and time were the most prominent adversaries.  Today’s literature on polar medicine describes a condition of reduced thyroxin levels in Antarctic over-winterers, i.e. low metabolism.  Sleep problems are also common, as can be expected in a region where the sun never sets in summer and never rises in winter. Nor is it surprising that the cold and dark winter months can lead to psychological stress, but in general Antarctica is a healthy place to be. 

The crews of the densely populated bases at McMurdo and the South Pole are subjected to a daily influx of fresh microbes from the outside world, and at times suffer airway and intestinal infections – “the crud”. But beyond these bases, after a 2 week “quarantine” – isolation from the outside world – the risk of infections is very slight.  Now we are all sharing the same microbes!

The traverse participants are all very healthy. Mandatory and thorough medical and dental examinations prior to departure should reveal any condition that would be incompatible with Antarctic field work.  On top of this most participants have previous experiences from similar conditions, and this ensures a very good level of fitness.

The health risks encountered by the traverse crew today fall mainly in three categories.  On the coldest continent of the Earth, the cold itself is of course an imminent threat.  People are working outside all day in temperatures down to -30 C, often with a significant windchill factor on top. Some of the equipment requires gloves and mittens to be taken off now and then, and it is necessary to plan ahead and to stay alert to avoid frostbite.  The sun is above all our good friend, but also poses a certain risk to skin and eyes. Thin ozone layer, altitude, 24 hour sunshine, and extreme levels of reflection  from all the snow combine to make sunscreen and sunglasses absolute requirements to avoid harm to eyes and skin.  However, the most acute risk we are facing here, is injuries from the handling of mechanical equipment, sharp tools and heavy items, and from moving about in heavy clothing and clumsy boots, up and down stairs and ladders, on and off cargo sledges.  In other words: Things may happen, and they usually happen when we least expect it.


“Doc” Ole checking one of his bags with medical supplies.  Photo: Stein Tronstad/NPI

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