Cold Weather's Coming: Is Your Body Ready?
Prince Harry joins Walking with the Wounded team members, on the island of Spitsbergen, between the Norwegian mainland and the North Pole March 29, 2011. This November the team will trek to the South Pole.
Dec. 12, 2011
- In two days, the 100th anniversary of the day Norwegian Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole for the first time, beating Englishman Robert F. Scott by more than a month, will be celebrated. Scott's heroic tale of perseverance, determination and the death of both him and his four team members is the stuff of legend. But what's forgotten when the tale of his journey is told are the scientific discoveries that Scott's larger expedition made -- discoveries that shaped our understanding of the Antarctic continent. Here's a look at some of the most important ones. Photo: Captain Robert Falcon Scott, leader of the Terra-Nova-Expedition (1911-1913), in polar gear.
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Marine Currents & the Antarctic Shipboard oceanographic measurements aboard Scott's ship, the Terra Nova, led to the discovery that marine currents circle the Antarctic continent, much colder than the water further north. Since then, scientists have concluded these currents form a natural barrier that has allowed Antarctic marine life to develop along their own evolutionary path. Scott's scientists at both the winter quarters on Ross Island and on ship voyages also pulled up dozens of examples of strange new sea life. They discovered new species of benthic organisms like brittle stars, mollusks, crustaceans, worms corals and sponges that hadn't been seen before, as well as new kinds of fish. The Terra Nova expedition in total brought back 40,000 new specimens to England, (including rocks and animal life). PHOTO: Steam Yacht 'Terra Nova' with dogs and men standing on ice near by, by Herbert Ponting
The Science of Weather Weather balloons launched daily by meteorologist George Simpson and other members of Scott's expedition recorded temperature, wind and barometric pressure data that scientists are still using today to form a baseline to measure climate change. These balloons and cloud formations from the Mt. Erebus volcano on Ross Island also measured high-altitude winds that circle the Antarctic continent, and were later found to affect weather around the globe. To get the temperature data, Simpson assigned a night watchman to take readings at midnight as well as noon. PHOTO: Sir George Clarke Simpson
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How Snow and Ice Form Physicist Charles Wright made detailed studies of Antarctic ice sheets, how sea ice forms and how the air and snow together form ice crystals on different structures. He also examined the nature of icebergs and how they break off from glaciers moving slowly from the polar ice cap toward the ocean. PHOTO: Sir Charles Seymour Wright
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Emperor Penguins & an Extinct Fern Scott's decision to send three men to retrieve Emperor penguin eggs during mid-winter of July 1911 -- an epic journey that zoologist Cherry Apsley-Garrard titled "The Worst Journey in the World" -- helped biologists figure out the life cycle of this rugged animal. Years later, the findings also disproved a Victorian-era theory that the development of the penguin's embryo explained its evolution, and that these primitive birds were related to lizards. As Scott and four of his men were returning from the South Pole to their base at Cape Evans, 800 miles away, they stopped to pick up some unusual rocks at Mount Buckley, along the Beardmore Glacier. The rocks later turned out to be fossils of Glyssopteris, an extinct fern that had also been found in India, South America, Africa and Australia. Scott's find later proved that that Antarctica was once part of a giant super-continent that broke up 160 million years ago. The fossils were found inside a tent alongside the frozen bodies of Scott and his men. PHOTO: The South Pole team hauling their sleds full of supplies on the way back to the base camp at the Cape Evans.
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In November, Prince Harry plans to walk 200 miles to the South Pole as part of a race for charity with disabled veterans. To prepare for the trek, he recently spent 20 hours in a special chamber that was cooled to 30 degrees below zero. Inside, the prince and his team exercised and slept as manmade winds gusted up to 45 miles per hour.
Harry's long night in the freezer may have offered some mental benefits, giving him practice with his gear and confidence that he will be able to survive the trek. But, experts said, enduring one night of cold months before a sub-zero event is unlikely to help anyone’s body prepare for an extended adventure near the poles.
In fact, studies show that it often takes weeks for our bodies to adapt to cold temperatures. Even then, the human body is far worse at acclimatizing to frigid conditions than it is to heat or altitude.
"Ultimately, we are a heat-adapted species," said Josh Snodgrass, an anthropologist at the University of Oregon, Eugene. "Even populations we think of as quintessentially cold-adapted, like Siberians or the Inuit, are not that far removed from human ancestors that adapted to heat. Our bodies are just not as good at dealing with cold."
Anyone who lives in a seasonal climate goes through the adjustment process every year. After a long, hot summer, the first few chilly days of fall are a shock to the system -- and the feeling is only partly psychological.
When you're not yet used to cool temperatures, your body reacts in several ways. First, it shivers, which is a useful -- if uncomfortable -- way of generating warmth. At the same time, blood vessels that lead to the extremities constrict as the body prioritizes sending blood to the core and keeping the essential organs warm. The result is cold fingers that don’t work as well as they should and aching toes that feel like ice cubes.
Over time, and that generally means several weeks, the human body adjusts to cold by dulling the shivering response. It also gets quicker at finding a balance between vessel constriction and dilation, allowing both the core and the outer shell of the body to stay warm. This process of habituation helps explain why temperatures that seem shocking in November can actually feel good in March.
Lab experiments -- along with studies of surfers, long-distance swimmers and people who live subsistence lifestyles in extremely cold places -- show that the human body can also adapt in deeper ways when exposure to cold is extreme and long lasting.
After enough time in the cold, for example, resting metabolism ramps up to a higher level so that the body produces more heat. In people exposed to the most extreme chills, like pearl divers in Korea and Japan who regularly plunge into waters as cold as 50 degrees F without a wetsuit, the body actually refines its ability to insulate itself by redistributing heat.
"That's hard to develop and takes a lot of repeated exposures," said Michael Sawka, a physiologist at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta.
The body can take a while to adjust to frigid temperatures.Getty Images
Emerging research suggests that groups of people who have lived for generations in very cold places may also develop stockier bodies with less surface area for losing heat as well as other adaptations that come from either genetic changes or through repeated exposure to cold starting as early as in the womb.
When it comes to sudden spells of very hot weather, most people quickly regulate how much they sweat. But even with the physiological adaptions that come from living in cold places, people still need to rely on clothes, shelter and nutrition to survive.
"Acclimation to cold is very, very modest compared to heat and high altitude," Sawka said. "We are basically warm-weather animals.”
Given the relatively short nature of his upcoming expedition and the extremely brief time he spent in the cold chamber, Prince Harry is unlikely to benefit from any long-term adaptations to cold, though he’ll likely begin to habituate after spending time in Antarctica.
Meanwhile, for people currently on the cusp of a changing season, there might be some wisdom to glean from research on people who live through the coldest of cold.
In his work with native populations in Siberia and Alaska, Snodgrass noticed that residents tend to focus on relationships with friends and family during the long, cold months. Come summertime, they live it up.
"It's amazing what people do during the three months of summer -- like 22 hours of activity a day," Snodgrass said. "Then they're almost psychologically hibernating for the winter. They emphasize what's good. That's how a lot of people make sense of it."