Sleeping and Communications J. S. Sweitzer -- Jan. 8, 1995

Everyone who visits the South Pole has some sort of reaction to the altitude and dryness. We are at a pressure altitude of about 12,000 feet and it's as dry as the Sahara Desert. Both of these conditions have immediate reactions on nearly everyone. Some get headaches, which are a sign of the altitude problem. They say that this is also partly due to dehydration. A few actually get quite sick. It can also slow up your thinking.

I don't seem to be affected as much as most people by the altitude, but it does give me trouble when I try to sleep for the first few days. Sleep, as well as outside communications, seem to me to be two important challenges to working at the Pole.

Sleep is first made difficult by the light-filled environment. Remember, the Sun is up and at the same intensity all the time. Only the direction the light strikes you changes. Where I am sleeping there's a window over my bed and a makeshift curtain. They are totally inadequate to the glare of the Sun in a cloudless sky over this white terrain. Even though the window is almost totally blocked, it's still bright enough to read in my cubical. This year I anticipated this problem by bringing along eye shades. They make everything almost totally dark.

So far so good, except for the problem of altitude. Initially, your system is trying to adjust to the reduced amount of oxygen. As a result your heart runs at a bit higher rate than normal. So, when you are laying down trying to rest it's as if you were taking a brisk walk. Well, for some reason my system finds it very difficult to sleep under these conditions. After a few of hours of just laying there, you eventually slow up and can sleep.

Sleep only continues until you have to rise to visit the toilet. Remember the dryness? You have to drink a good bit of water to keep from dehydrating and, for some strange reason, you have to visit the toilet much more often than usual. So, I put on my cold weather clothes and sunglasses and trudge half a block to the nearest restroom facilities.

Despite these challenges and the snoring of others in the building where I'm staying, I managed to get a decent night's sleep.

Communications are another major challenge for anyone working or conducting science at the Pole. Those watching the "Live from Antarctica" program may not realize that the poles of the Earth are nearly in communications black holes. This is because nearly all of the satellites used for video and telecommunications are directly above the equator of the Earth. Since they are a finite distance away, they cannot be "seen" from the Poles. We can only communicate using satellites that are "errant". That means that they stray slightly south of their normal path by a few degrees, just enough to be communicated with on our horizon.

The scientists down here hope that this can all be improved in the future. This is because we can use our telescopes remotely if we have good telephone line connections that allow us to use the Internet directly. I'll bet this can be solved in the next few years. I'm not so sure about the sleeping.