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Dispatches from Antarctica: Forever Changed by the Ice

Coming back from Earth’s southernmost continent is just as disorienting as going there.

ByCaitlin SaksNOVA NextNOVA Next
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Photo credit: Arlo Perez

November 21, 2018:

It’s 1:15 am and I am sitting in the Christchurch airport hotel lobby, just next door to the U.S. Antarctic Terminal. My stomach feels weird and I can’t sleep.

Coming back from Antarctica is just as disorienting as going.

Our last week in Antarctica was, in a word, fabulous. While the first week was full of frustrations about not getting out in the field to collect footage, the last week was one big, intense, adventure-filled day after another, with no break. Day, after day, after day. It was thrilling and adrenaline-pumping, and exhausting. Lake Bonney to Ice Caves, to Mount Erebus, to near the sea ice edge in search of penguins. We didn’t stop for a breath.

Until Monday.

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Saturday was our last day filming. Sunday was a harried day of packing hundreds of pounds of gear; returning tents, sleds, snow mobile helmets, pagers and radios; cleaning our rooms and office; doing our laundry. And of course, the gift shop—had to take an hour there. Yes, it has a gift shop! At 8:30 pm, we had to deliver all of our checked bags, including all the camera gear, to one particular building to be put on a pallet and loaded onto the following day’s C-17.

And then Monday… there was some leftover cleaning and returning of items. But mostly, we were done.

Done.

Our pace dropped from 100 mph to about 5. After a month of sleep deprivation, my body finally felt compelled to snooze whenever and wherever possible. I took no fewer than five naps: head on the desk, laying down under the desk, on the ride to the airfield, and on the plane to New Zealand, twice. It is like someone turned off all the breaker switches. How does the human body know when it can relax? Arlo and Zac found it amusing to photograph me in my various napping states.

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The whole NOVA team, from left: Arlo Perez, Caitlin Saks, and Zac Fink

As someone who is fascinated by science, I feel like I performed a science experiment on my own body over the last month. As soon as I landed in Antarctica, my appetite increased dramatically. A combination of the cold and the activity—which included wearing about 10-15 pounds of extra warmth everywhere—seemed to increase my metabolism. I ate voraciously… three meals a day, plus midnight pizza. And dessert to boot. I was actually kind of surprised with myself… but I was hungry. Then, my sleep. It didn’t matter when I went to sleep, I could not sleep more than 6.5 hours. Some nights, it was 4. A few nights, it was only 2. The eternal daylight made the passage of time slip by unnoticed, and I’d find myself in the office at 11 pm. But still, I wouldn’t be able to sleep late, and my cognitive functioning seemed unaffected for the most part. On just a couple days, I would nap in the office. It was like I was living in a different mode of being human – totally different from my home life. With a lot more pizza, sugar, and activity, and a lot less sleep and email.

And then coming back. As soon as my body knew I was heading north, it was nap time… every hour. My head kind of throbbed with dreariness. When we landed in Christchurch at 10:30 pm, it was dark and raining hard. That’s weird. Walking from the airport to the Clothing Distribution Center to return our gear, we could smell the thick aroma of earth. Everything was very wet and alive. I met my husband at the Clothing Distribution Center and his first remark was that I looked sunburnt and gaunt (but “good,” haha)—which I am not sure I entirely agree with, but then again, I have lost all sense of perspective.

The next morning in Christchurch was occupied by getting Zac, Arlo, and all of our stuff through customs and checked into a flight back to the states. I’d be spending a few more days in New Zealand resting before heading to the World Congress of Science & Factual Producers in Australia. I am grateful for the time off—and I need it. I didn’t realize until I stopped how fast I was going. Now that I am back from the Ice and liberated from the hundreds of pounds of stuff to schlep… my appetite has dropped to nearly zero and my stomach has been upset. Such an odd night-and-day contrast. But… apparently, my body still hasn’t quite figured out how to sleep.

They say that Antarctica changes you. It is hard to describe how and why, but having been there for a month, I would have to agree. It takes you so far out of your normal operating procedures—your daily activities, diet, sleep schedule, social support system—that you are forced to rediscover yourself. Who are you if you change everything about how you are living? Do you trust yourself? Can you come to trust your new colleagues? How do you deal with a whole new set of societal rules on how to behave? How do you deal with challenge? With failure? How do you adapt to rapidly changing conditions, and reinvent your project to meet new realities?

And then… there are the natural environs. How does your perspective change on the Earth when you have viscerally experienced what it is like to live where no humans should be able to survive? It is a stark, inhospitable, but dazzling landscape everywhere you look.

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It is going to take some time for me to figure out the answers. I think I need to spend some more time in the real world to discern what is a permanent change, and what was situational. But it is an experience that will not soon be forgotten… particularly because it was so extremely, ridiculously well documented!

The Polar Extremes: Antarctica YouTube series is scheduled to be released in mid-late 2019. Stay tuned!

Science Editor Caitlin Saks and Digital Associate Producer Arlo Perez are in Antarctica for the next month reporting about science research in Antarctica as a part of NOVA’s “Polar Extremes” project, which is funded by the National Science Foundation. Joining them is Zac Fink, field director and director of photography.