Antarctica altitude


Hyperbaric chamber at McMurdo station


Russian dollhouse hyperbaric chamber


Mt. Erebus, an active volcano, smoking in the distance

Hola altitude sticklers,

     My last email waxed poetic about the class I took on altitude related illnesses, and a few astute readers sent me a query about the need for any kind of hyperbaric treatment since I’m working at a station that is at sea level. The implication behind the question was that perhaps in an unusual departure from it’s usual fiscal approach to spending taxpayer money in a wise and responsible fashion, the US government is squandering hard earned greenbacks on wasteful purchases like portable decompression chambers. Let me clear the record by stating that not only do we have numerous portable Gamow bags, but we also have a state of the art two person hyperbaric chamber with all the bells and whistles that would be the envy of any sophisticated diving operation. We could of course, take a lesson from our dysfunctional ally, the super power wanna-be Russians, and save a few rubles by having a decompression chamber with only enough room for a grown man in a cramped fetal position, which is shown above. I believe the design concept of the Russian pod was to take your mind off the pain and discomfort of the bends or altitude sickness by channeling your anxiety towards total panic because you are stuffed inside a metal capsule the size of a beach ball with Russian technology providing your life support system.

            Anyway, it turns out that there is a lot of elevation as you head inland, and in fact Antarctica is the continent that has the highest average elevation on the planet. The ice is the main reason, and in some places it approaches a thickness of 3 miles. The South Pole research station sits on top of 9400 feet of ice and overall the average thickness of the cold, hard white stuff is over a mile. There are also notable mountains, from the highest point known as Mt. Vinson, at over 16,000 feet, as well as 12,400 foot Mt. Erebus, which is just 20 miles away from our base at McMurdo and is a boiling, bubbling, rock spewing volcano that appears smoking in the distance on a clear day. As a result, there are many opportunities to suffer from altitude related problems. And if that isn’t enough reason to put stock in hyperbarics, there are a number of scuba diving operations going on at any given time, since there seems to be no shortage of people with a hankering for diving under the ice in 28 degree water to mingle with the seals, penguins and sea creatures that often have ethylene glycol, otherwise known as antifreeze coursing through their blood vessels.

            So that’s today’s science lesson, which could be summarized by stating that you don’t want to get an altitude related sickness anywhere near the Russian base without a few liters of Vodka to prepare yourself for their dollhouse version of a treatment chamber.


                 Hyperbaric Bob