Russia has been in lockdown for about a month now. Many people are forced to spend much more time sharing common space with their family members. However, there are people who are accustomed to living in such a mode by force of duty. These are polar explorers. For several months in a row they work away from home, entertainment and walks. They have to keep house with their colleagues in a confined space.
Alexey Ekaykin, a polar explorer and glaciologist, spoke about how to live and work in isolation, keeping your spirits up, and not quarrelling with others. He works as an Associate Professor at the Department of Physical Geography and Landscape Planning of St Petersburg University. He is a Leading Research Associate at the Laboratory for Climatic and Environmental Changes of the Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute.
How long did your polar expeditions last? How many colleagues were there with you?
I go to Antarctica only for the summer season. I do not stay for the winter. A wintering expedition to the Pole lasts over a year, while summer expeditions last several months. My longest expedition lasted six months; four of them I spent in Central Antarctica at the Vostok Station.
About 20 people lived and worked with me there. The other two months we spent camping. We travelled to the Progress and Mirny Stations, but not everybody joined us. In addition, we were divided into groups and lived in sleigh houses for three or four people. This situation is perhaps the closest to a lockdown: there is nowhere to go from such a house while travelling. Of course, you can go for a walk when you stop for a while, but not so far and not for a long time.
Do polar explorers have to undergo any psychological testing before an expedition, like astronauts?
We undergo a medical examination, which includes a meeting with a psychiatrist. If anybody is not fit for health reasons, they may be rejected. This applies to real diseases, however. Unlike astronauts, we do not have to pass any special compatibility tests. Perhaps it is a loss, because sometimes it turns out that people are not very compatible. But, on the other hand, we do not live in such a harsh environment as they do in space. Astronauts have to share an ultimately closed space with each other for several months. They have to live in a very small group: the crew normally consists of about three to four people.
It is easier for polar explorers: there is a bit of nature around, you can be alone, step aside, and breathe. This is about summer expeditions. Winter expeditions are more difficult to stand, I guess. There are usually fewer people and you cannot go out because the outside air temperature is about 70 degrees below zero. However, everyone has their own room at the station, so I think they do not have serious problems either.
Are there stresses and quarrels during your expeditions? How do you manage to cope with them?
Our teams are long-standing. The core staff are people who are not newcomers. They already know each other. And they form a social space around them. There are few newcomers in polar expeditions. And I can say our system is a self-rectifying one. Those who cannot get along with people at all will simply not come again. And those who know how to live side by side will remain.
I cannot even recall any quarrels. At least during the summer season, when I am there, there were no serious conflicts. That is largely because have a lot to do – just a hell of a lot. Everybody is busy with their own work. We see each other only at breakfast, lunch and dinner.
By the way, could you describe the daily routine of a polar expedition? What is your daily schedule?
At 8am we have breakfast, at 1pm – lunch, and at 7pm dinner is served. This is the core of the day. Only few of us eat breakfast. We have the opportunity to sleep longer instead. As for me, I always eat it: you need a lot of energy to work until lunch. Besides meals, everybody has their own routines that depend on what kind of work each person does. For example, I work mainly at the glacio-drilling facility and at the glaciological laboratory, as well as taking samples in the field. Although, there are also office days when I sit in my room with a computer, writing or computing.
Everybody knows what to do. My schedule here is about the same as in the city. There are people who work in shifts: for example DPP operators. DPP stands for diesel power plants. There are four of them, and the operators make sure that the diesel generators work smoothly and supply the station with heat and electricity. This process must be constantly monitored, because if a DPP turns off even for a day, we will all die. Therefore, our operators are on duty in 24-hour shifts: a day on and two days off, for instance.
The meteorologist has a completely different schedule, because he needs to go out to check the weather regularly. That is, every six hours he must visit his site and read the instruments. Of course, automation is doing a lot now, but particular measurements can only be made by a human being. Therefore, the meteorologist cannot sleep for more than six hours in a row. Therefore, he has his own daily routine. He has a deadline at 1am, then the next at 7am, then at 1pm, and the last deadline of the day is around 8pm. So, everybody works in their own mode.
And how are the household duties distributed at the station? Does each of you do something or do you have special staff for that?
At the station we have a cook, an electrician and a radio operator. As for the other household duties such as cleaning and mopping, they are equally distributed among the staff. Those with not such a busy schedule – for example, doctors when no one is ill – can take on a bit more responsibility. In general, daily duties are distributed evenly: every day a new person is in charge of keeping the house. Such work is done by each of us.
What do polar explorers do in their free time? Do they get together or spend their leisure alone?
Free time? What is it? We are at work practically all the time – and after dinner, too. If we talk about the Vostok Station, there are no particular opportunities for leisure. The lounge is very small. It can only accommodate five people. There is a TV set there and sometimes we watch it.
Now, since everyone has a PC, they relax in their own room most of the time. The Internet at the station allows you to watch a movie, play a game, and communicate using social media.
This is about the Vostok Station located in the depths of Antarctica. Other stations are located on the coast, where you can go for a walk in summer or go fishing. If it’s a warm day, you can even play football. There are much more opportunities for leisure. And the lounge is spacious, with a billiard table. Besides, there is a library.
Do you pay visits to your colleagues from other stations? Do they visit yours?
Yes, we do visit each other. We also visit stations belonging to other states. Yet, this is not the case when we are at the Vostok Station: the closest station Concordia, a French–Italian research facility, is about 500 kilometres away. But next to the Progress Station there are stations belonging to India and China. The Australian station is a bit further away. They communicate quite actively with each other, and visit each other even in winter.
Is there any entertainment infrastructure in Antarctica?
In different countries and at different stations everything is organised in different ways. The American McMurdo Station, for example, is a huge city by Antarctic standards. It is inhabited by two thousand people in summer. There are shops, bars, food and drink venues, and canteens. A huge number of tourists go there.
At our stations, everything is different: there are no paid services. No bars, no cafes and no shops. Of course, it seems a disadvantage to me. I would like tourists to come to our stations, too. It can bring a lot of money.
Are there any holidays or weekends at the station? How do you celebrate, if you do?
Officially, we have no days off there. All days are workdays for us. But, of course, sometimes there are days off. After all, no person can work without end. Apart from taking meals, the main entertainment at the station is visiting a bathhouse on Saturdays. And Sunday is a regular working day, no different from the others.
There are several holidays during the summer and winter seasons. The main holidays are, of course, the New Year and the station’s birthday. 16 December is the birthday of Vostok. National holidays such as the Victory Day are celebrated during wintering expeditions. The March of the Immortal Regiment was even organised in Antarctica last year. A special Antarctic holiday is Mid-Winter's Day. No one calculates the exact day of this middle: the holiday is celebrated on 21 June, the day of the summer solstice. In the Northern Hemisphere, this is the longest day of the year, while in the Southern Hemisphere it is vice versa, the longest night. And of course, we celebrate the birthdays of the expedition members.
During holidays we get together and communicate. There are festive meals. For that purpose, partly, something may be allocated from the station's allowance, but many of us bring food with them and cooperate with the others. There is even champagne. In general, our holiday is not much different from a celebration in the 'mainland'.
Were there feelings of loneliness and lack of freedom during expeditions? Or perhaps you were just bored?
I was definitely never bored: there is always something to do. This is generally a universal recipe suitable for life in the 'mainland': if you start to get bored – get busy – and preferably physically busy. This is mere physiology: you work with your hands, get tired, and as a result you get an endorphin buzz. Your mood rises. Working in front of a PC is wonderful, but it does not give you this feeling of joy. In Antarctica, I have much more physical work to do than here in the city, so I never got bored.
However, during our trip deep into Antarctica, a certain boredom arose. There is absolutely nothing to do. While the operators are working with the levers, driving – what should you do? You can sleep, but what will you do at night? You cannot walk around. Even reading is impossible because of strong vibration. The best way out is to sit in the cockpit with the operator and keep him amused. You are sitting like that for hours, chatting on different topics. Or staring at the horizon.
What can help people cope with difficulties in lockdown? Only working?
I have been in lockdown for the fifth week now, too. And it is hard on me. I feel uneasy having to stick to such a regime. Shopping once in three days is a bit entertaining. So, the current situation is also difficult for me.
Yes, work is the main recipe for dealing with boredom and avoiding quarrels in isolation. When you are busy, there is simply no time to be bored or to quarrel. Even if there is no remote work for you, you should invent it. And you need physical exercise. Not only for the purpose of not getting fat – although this is also important. Above all, you need it to produce the mentioned endorphins. Joy comes when muscles tighten.