Planning and technology helps mitigate Antarctic risk

Danger is nothing new to Antarctic workers, with often-extreme weather conditions adding complexity to already difficult logistical issues and necessarily inspiring a level of self-sufficiency amongst polar researchers. Rapidly improving technology has lessened that need in many ways, yet incidents such as the April 25 evacuation of ailing U.S. doctor Ronald Shemenski reinforce the need for careful planning to handle potential emergencies on the continent.

Fighting a rapidly closing window of opportunity to reach Americas’s Admundsen-Scott Station at the pole, rescuers were forced to work and rework rescue plans and eventually shift to an alternate plan that utilized more agile, cold-tolerant Twin Otter planes to extract the 59-year-old Shemenski. Shemenski is now undergoing treatment for pancreatitis in Colorado, but the incident continues to play on the minds and plans of organizers at the U.S. National Science Foundation’s Office of Polar Programs (OPP).

“Because of the paradigm, I think we initially went with what we were familiar with,” says Erick Chiang, section head of Polar Research Support at OPP, referring to initial plans to evacuate Shemenski with a heavier, less weather-tolerant C-130 transport plane. “But (the Twin otter plane) had several things that mitigated the risk. Now that we have accomplished this so late in the year, which is a first, now we have to come up with a contingency plan by understanding more fully the operational envelopes of all options that are available to us.”

Although the media’s attention during the rescue was focused on the pilots and the planes performing the rescue mission, technology in its various forms played an indispensable role in supporting the effort.

Telemedicine, in particular, may have no more natural fit than the task of supporting hundreds of researchers that normally cannot be reached at all for much of the year. For Shemenski as for Jerri Nielsen, a previous base doctor evacuated in mid-1999 after she was diagnosed with breast cancer telemedicine was a lifesaver, thanks to remote ultrasound equipment installed several years ago by OPP contractor Raytheon Polar Services.

Using an aggregation of data channels from several satellites serving the polar region, Shemenski and Nielsen were able to collaborate with mainland specialists over a live data feed running over the base’s T1-grade satellite link. This let them diagnose problems in real time, and provides an invaluable method of peer support that would have been unthinkable even ten years ago.

Remote imaging has been equally important for medical staff supporting the four bases operated by the Australian Antarctic Division. Although those sites don’t have the scads of bandwidth available to Admundsen-Scott, remote doctors have still made heavy use of digital photography to work with specialists back in Australia. It’s an invaluable method of support for researchers who can otherwise expect little outside help in their everyday lives, says Kim Pitt, assistant director of operations with that agency.

“In the main our expectation is that the stations are entirely self-sufficient for the period of at least the winter,” explains Pitt, who says effective risk management is critical to effectively managing the occasional anomaly. “But there will be extreme cases (such as an incident years ago in which a US plane was called upon to evacuate an Australian researcher mortally wounded in a freak explosion), and back here in Australia we have to be able to respond in any way we can reporting to the (government), looking after the families, coordinating doctors, and at the same time managing it as a business.”

The Australian Antarctic Division reviews safety and support policies annually and after any abnormal incidents, and recently codified its emergency procedures in a move to improve quality even further. “We’ve always handled it particularly well in the past, but the documentation hasn’t been robust in the past,” says Pitt. “The contemporary practice of risk management would laugh if you didn’t have things like that documented, so we’ve now documented that process. It’s all part of the process of doing things properly.”

Fortunately, despite their remote location Antarctic bases have been brought much closer to support staff through the introduction, over the past decade, of direct-dial telephone services, e-mail and fax communications.

Bolstered by precautionary measures such as ubiquitous first aid training and careful medical screening of applicants before they’re sent south, Antarctic research organizations have succeeded in eliminating much of the unpredictability that made the continent irretrievably associated with danger for so many decades.

“The heroic age is over,” says Mike Mahon, IT and science administrator with Antarctica New Zealand, which coordinated the evacuation of eleven American staffers from McMurdo Base just a day before Shemenski’s extraction. “Overall people are pretty much aware that they’re working in an isolated environment, but all Antarctic bases operate to health and safety standards that are employed in their own countries. If anyone is seriously ill, a medevac similar to the one that just happened would be organized using either New Zealand or US Air Force planes.”

Technology in its various forms will continue to improve support of researchers at Antarctic stations. Yet as the Shemenski evacuation proved, however, even the best-laid plans must be regularly revisited. “Planning is the key word in all of our operations,” says OPP’s Chiang. “Because of the weather and all the things that can affect you, one of our Antarctic maxims is ‘the plan you develop is simply a point from which you deviate’. But having that plan anchors you, so you can deal with those contingencies in a much more measured way. Antarctica will always slam the door on you at some point, if you’re not careful.”