Scientists studying isolation in Antarctica

Canadian scientists have received funding to be part of a study in Antarctica that is geared towards mimicking life in outer space.

The study will be carried out at two opposite locations on the continent – The Concordia station and British Antarctic Survey – with the data being fed to researchers in Canada and Europe.

With Antarctica being one of the most remote places ever with extreme conditions, it is a perfect test bed for studies involving isolation and a rather practical and cheap alternative to sending astronauts on long flights in the International Space Station (ISS) or other such spacecrafts for long duration.

Antarctica has been pegged by all those researchers who have been there as a place that is akin to outer space with too extreme conditions and the isolation factor at its peak. The continent has already been a test bed for many European Space Agency studies.

Canadian scientists including Peter Suedfeld, a professor emeritus at UBC’s department of psychology, have received funding from the Canadian Space Agency to study the psychological impact of isolation on astronauts and others living or working in remote locations. This research project also involves the European Space Agency and the British Antarctic Survey.

According to Suedfeld, the project will involve people carrying out a few tasks including reading of the same story out loud, keeping weekly records of their tasks through a voice diary, keeping records of their feelings, their thoughts, among other things. If the people agree, their dinner table conversations will also be recorded once a week.

Suedfeld will be in charge of analyzing the diaries’ content and score them for signs of stress. He will also be measuring the study participants’ ability to solve problems and the strategies they adopt as well as group dynamics and mood.

One question does arise as to why Antarctica? Suedfeld explains that the continent is quite similar to the conditions you would find in a space station. While you are in spacecraft on a journey to a distant planet, you will be away from home for years together and same is the condition on Antarctica, as you won’t be physically present at your home. You will be in a small capsule within a very strange and potentially lethal natural environment, which people are not evolved to live in. Neither space nor Antarctica has ever had a permanent human population. There’s very little in the way of other life forms around.

You can’t step outside without wearing elaborate life-support clothing and equipment, so you’re quite confined. Communication with home is restricted. Whatever you want, you have to take with you. Both the physical and the social environment are relatively unchanging and low in stimulation.

The research will not only benefit astronauts who will be actually taking those long-distance space trips to Mars, but will also benefit scientists involved in research of environments that share similarity with space. People living in remote places could also benefit from the findings of the study. Old people living in old age homes could also benefit from the findings.

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