The Coldest Journey

Dr Arwyn Edwards, Simon Cameron and Dr Luis Mur of IBERS

Dr Arwyn Edwards, Simon Cameron and Dr Luis Mur of IBERS

26 March 2013

Scientists from Aberystwyth University are part of a project which will measure how the expedition team of  ‘The Coldest Journey’,  the world’s first ever attempt to cross the Antarctic in winter, respond to months of complete darkness in temperatures reaching minus 70oC.

Dr Arwyn Edwards, Dr Luis Mur and PhD student Simon Cameron from the Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences (IBERS) join an international consortium of 20 institutions in the White Mars Project. The project is led by King’s College London and coordinated by the European Space Agency’s Dr Alex Kumar.

The White Mars project will use the similarities that exist between the conditions humans encounter on a winter Antarctic expedition and those found in space. The expedition team will be isolated for a year, with long periods of complete darkness, extreme cold and altitude stress. Sir Ranulph Fiennes’s recent evacuation from the expedition illustrates the unforgiving nature of this hostile environment.

Although the toll of Polar endeavour on humans is the stuff of legends, little is known about how the smallest of organisms that make up the human microbial ecosystem endure in the Polar regions.  The IBERS team are responsible for mapping the team’s microbiomes over time.

Dr Arwyn Edwards, one of the researchers explained: “Research into the human microbiome in normal conditions is a very high profile field with major implications for health and disease, as the microbes living on our bodies outnumber our own cells tenfold. We anticipate that we will have a unique sample set.

“We will look at changes in skin, gut, saliva and nasal microbial communities. We will also look at markers of stress in the expedition team's blood and correlate changes between stress levels and microbial communities.”

Data and samples will be collected by trained members of the expedition team using the expedition's science workshop housed in a 27ft insulated container.  These will then be sent on to a number of respected research institutes, including IBERS for analysis.

The expedition journey from Crown Bay to Captain Scott's base at McMurdo Sound, via the South Pole, will take six months - mostly in complete darkness - and will cover more than 2,000 miles.

The expedition team will have to be entirely self-sufficient. There will be no search and rescue facility available as aircraft cannot penetrate inland during winter, due to darkness and risk of fuel freezing. 

It is hoped that the findings of scientists in IBERS will help shape mankind's approach towards future long-distance space travel. Closer to home, the IBERS team are interested in whether stresses on respiratory function from extreme cold and altitude affect the lung microbiome in the same way as chronic lung illnesses such as emphysema. Emphysemia currently affects the lives of about a million people in the UK alone.