Physiological Research in Antarctica

National Science Foundation U.S. Antarctic Program

Altitude illness includes a host of symptoms that are common when going to moderate or higher altitudes. Normally symptoms are transient, lasting 2-3 days and are mild at altitudes of 7000 to 10,000 feet. Above these altitudes, symptoms may be more severe and at all altitudes there is the risk of life threatening illness. Typical symptoms include nausea or loss of appetite, headache, light headedness or dizziness, fatigue, shortness of breath, occasionally swelling in hands or feet and difficulty sleeping. More rare are the severe and life threatening conditions that include pulmonary and cerebral edema. Known contributors to altitude symptoms or sickness include how quickly one goes to altitude, how high the altitude is or great the change in altitude and how active one is at altitude. However, despite similar levels of exposure, some people appear to have much more severe symptoms, suggesting that some people are more susceptibility to the conditions that cause altitude illness.

The US Antarctic Program has a large number of healthy people going to the South Pole through the sea level station McMurdo each spring/summer (southern hemisphere); our fall and winter. The South Pole is at an altitude of 2900 m, but due to lower pressures than other areas of the world, the pressure altitude may vary between 3300 and 4000 m. In addition, increased activity levels at the South Pole and cold may aggravate symptoms. Although the altitudes are not extreme, most personnel will have mild to moderate altitude related symptoms. The frequency, intensity and duration of symptoms have not formally been quantified in the US Antarctic Program previously to determine need for prophylactic treatment. In addition, the highly structured Antarctic program offers a unique opportunity to study predictors of altitude illness in an otherwise healthy population that cannot be easily pursued at other locations, like ski resorts, due to the variability in how people go to altitude (e.g., drive, fly) and how quickly they go to altitude. Thus an additional aim of this study will be to determine predictors of altitude illness (including genetic markers) in the general population. The findings from this study will have implications for the military, NASA and clinically, since hypoxia (similar to that of high altitude) drives the pathophysiology of a number of diseases states, including diseases such as chronic heart failure, lung disease, obstructive sleep apnea.

The research project was funded October of 2006 and will run for three years.

The study will be incorporating the use of the Vivometric Lifeshirts (wearable shirts for physiological monitoring) and BodyMedia activity monitors for quantifying activity levels of study participants as well as Medical Graphics Corp portable spirometry units.

Study Dates 2007:

  • October 8th – November 30th 2007 in Antarctica – Year 2
  • At McMurdo October 12th through November 23rd.
  • At South Pole October 17th through November 14th

Study Dates 2006:

  • October 9th – November 30th 2006 in Antarctica – Year 1
  • October 14th – November 18th 2006 in Antarctica for the First field season.