Life on White Mars

What it's really like to spend a year in Antarctica

Imagine waking up in pitch black darkness. You have no idea what time of day – or night – it is, and when you look outside your window you see nothing but an empty, inky landscape that stretches out to infinity. The temperature is minus 80 degrees and you haven’t slept properly because, where you are in the world, the sun no longer rises each morning to anchor you to the new day.

As she told, this was the uncomfortable reality that medical doctor Beth Healey found herself facing last year for a straight stretch of over three months as she scrambled to adapt to life at Concordia, a research station in the midst of winter-struck Antarctica. For 105 days the researcher, who was heading up a year-long research project on the physical and psychological effects of being in an isolated place for the European Space Agency, didn’t see the sun.

“The huge effect of living without the sun was the biggest surprise for me,” the 29-year-old said. “I had worked in lots of polar regions up north before, and was used to the cold environment, so I flew out to Concordia feeling a bit smug. But our circadian rhythms are synced to sunlight, and without it I really struggled. For the first few days I just didn’t sleep at all.”

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The challenge of living with sleep deprivation meant Healey was less productive on some days than others, although she still tested her human subjects in her lab at various times throughout each day.

To try and bring some structure to the 105-day-long block of darkness that she and her 12 fellow crewmates faced, they imposed a compulsory lunch and dinner schedule, meaning Healey often woke up to lunch and had midnight snacks for dinner. But it wasn’t all bad, and studying the effects of such extreme living conditions on humans was the main reason she was there, after all.

“You go into it feeling apprehensive and wondering how you’re going to cope, but it’s fascinating to have that experience and it’s the only time that you really get to feel you’re living on a different planet,” she said. “Plus it’s absolutely beautiful: you’d go outside at lunch and see the Milky Way in the sky. The stars, and the auroras, are incredibly clear because there’s no light pollution.”

And the eventual return of the sun was a surprisingly emotional moment for Healey and her crew, who celebrated its arrival by jubilantly jumping around and eating a giant, sun-shaped cake prepared by the in-house chef.

You’d go outside at lunch and see the Milky Way in the sky.
People compare walking in Antarctica with walking in space.

Living in such a different environment can also take a huge psychological toll on someone, particularly in a remote location like Concordia where, at certain times of the year, there is literally no way to leave the base. In March all the planes leave the continent for nine months and, even in an emergency, there is no escape.

“When the last plane left, that was an emotional time,” Healey confided. “You know you’re not going to see any other people for an entire nine months, and even though we all had lots of medical and psychological testing, it puts pressure on the crew to know you can’t be evacuated if there are any problems.”

But the lack of an escape route made it easier for Healey to come to terms with spending the next 12 months at Concordia. “Of course I had bad days, and days when I thought, I’ve had enough,” she admitted. “But because I didn’t have the option to leave, it wasn’t a massive thing in my mind.”

One of the things that almost pushed her to the edge was the horrific-sounding three-in-one gel given to each crew member to use as a shampoo, conditioner and body wash in the shower. As all the water used at Concordia is recycled, traditional shampoos and conditioners are banned, and these were the two things Healey missed most after her friends and family.

“As soon as I got back home I got a haircut,” she laughed. “The gel was supposed to do everything but in reality it did nothing. Stuff like that really makes you realise you’re somewhere different, and actually it makes a big difference to how you feel.”

Life on White Mars 1

Even when living in permanent darkness, Healey was determined to stick to her usual beauty regime, to keep her routine as normal as possible. “Just because you’re on Concordia doesn’t mean you have to change who you are as a person. There are so many changes to your life that it’s nice to keep some consistency and normality.”

To this end, she wore makeup every day and took straighteners with her to base, although she didn’t end up needing them as the low humidity made her hair blissfully straight. “I hate curly hair so that was good!” she laughed.

Maintaining a beauty regime was so important to Healey that she even had a package of cosmetics shipped over to her from John Lewis, in an impressive feat of makeup-loving determination. The package, containing treats such as a Bobbi Brown makeup stick and a face mask, was delivered along with clothes from ASOS to the base in Christchurch, before being flown across to Concordia. It could just be the furthest that a package of online shopping has ever travelled.

In spite of this unwavering dedication to her beauty routine, Healey is determined to show that she is no different from her male counterparts.

“I don’t look like your typical polar explorer, and when I got my first job in Greenland people said, ‘we’re worried as you’re so small and might not do well in the environment’. But no one, male or female, is built for living in -80 degrees. I may need a few extra layers to keep warm but I’m just as capable as the men, and women can bring something different to the group.”

Having celebrated all of her birthdays since her 25th in a polar environment, Healey has certainly built up enough experience to deal with the cold, and is keen to see more women join her in the future. During her year on Concordia there were just three women at base alongside 10 men.

“I think women have a lot to contribute and hopefully you’ll see much more of us doing it in the future,” she said.

So what next for Healey? The explorer wants to stay involved in the space industry and keep researching the impact of extreme environments, and her ultimate dream would be to go to space.

“I don’t think I’ll do another trip over the Antarctic winter, though,” she added.

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Beth recently spoke at New Scientist Live, a festival of ideas and discovery at ExCeL London.