Living in the Arctic

How do humans adapt to extreme cold?
11 June 2019

Interview with 

Charlotte Connolly, Scott Polar Museum


Ice crystals


Humans have been living in cold parts of the world for tens of thousands of years. But how did we adapt to life at these extremes, and what kind of challenges do you need to keep in mind if you want to thrive? Moreover, how did the early explorers to the poles survive? To find out, Adam Murphy took a trip to the Scott Polar Museum at the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge to meet Charlotte Connolly, to learn about life at low temperatures...

Adam - In general, the further north and south you go from the equator the colder it gets,with both the north and south poles covered in ice. You wouldn't think people would want to live there, but they do, and they have done for a very long time.

Charlotte - People have been living in the Arctic for thousands of years; we're much more recent visitors to the Antarctic. But people who live in the Arctic and have lived in the Arctic for a long time have been reliant on typically animal materials, so furs and those kinds of things to make sure that they can keep themselves warm.

But they've also had to make sure that they eat enough fat, making sure their nutrition is right in order to have enough energy to live their lives. When people go off to Antarctica,  if they're doing research with us, we know that if they’re going to be out in the field they need something like 6000 calories a day. Four or five times as much energy is required just kind of survive and live life in a normal way if you're in a very cold area.

There are a few other things to consider, so making sure that you keep warm is one of them but keeping dry is another one. Some of the clothing that you'll see if you wander around the Polar Museum looks surprisingly thin, and that's because if you get too warm, if you get so warm that you sweat, then your sweat will chill you off more than if you are just wearing something thin.

Adam - When it comes to furs, some work better than others.

Charlotte - One of the furs that was used by indigenous people, particularly across Scandinavia but elsewhere as well, and then was adopted in the 20th and the19th century by European explorers was reindeer fur. Now reindeer fur is made up of lots of fibres that are hollow, so hollow things trap a bit of air in them and that means they're really good insulators. So good in fact that when reindeer lay down in the snow or if snow falls on them, it doesn't melt because they're that well insulated.

Adam - When Westerners came to start exploring these areas aiming to be the first to reach the poles, what did they adopt to make the journey?

Charlotte - We're stood in front of a sleeping bag. It's a sleeping bag that was used by Captain Oates. He was one of the people famously who lost his life on the expedition with captain Scott. But the reason I’m pointing it out to you is because it’s made of reindeer fur, and that use of reindeer fur comes directly from people living in the Arctic who've lived there for thousands of years who know that reindeer fur is an incredibly good insulator. So it's an example of how, in the 20th century, people are still using those kinds of technologies that they borrowed from people who live in the Arctic in order to keep themselves warm and safe when travelling in the polar regions.

Adam - And what kind of foods would you have to bring for something like this?

Charlotte - In the museum we've got various tins of things. We've got some stuff which is delightful, called pemmican, that's kind of ground up meat and fat, which is very densely calorific and does exactly what you need which is give you lots of energy. Unfortunately, it's not very interesting food to eat. So the folks who were in the Antarctic with Captain Scott would boil a tub of water, they'd put some pemmican in and then they'd add something, whether it was mustard powder or chocolate powder, really anything to give it just to give it a bit of flavour.

Adam - We mentioned Scott's journey earlier. His trip to the Poles ended in tragedy. Captain Oates, who owned the reindeer sleeping bag, famously sacrificed himself, leaving the tent saying “I am just going outside, I maybe sometime”, never to return. What went wrong with Scott's expedition?

Charlotte - Captain Scott went all the way to the South Pole along with four companions. I always say, it's one of those trips where if one of the things that went wrong had gone wrong, they'd have been fine. If two of the things that had gone wrong had gone wrong, they probably would’ve been fine. But there was an awful lot of little things and some of them quite big things that went wrong that altogether conspired to make it a disaster for those people concerned. They were unlucky with the weather, someone had got an old injury that opened up, they didn't have a good concept of what caused scurvy, they used a different type of technology to Amundsen, say. There were lots and lots of little things that altogether added up to make it a problem and, unfortunately for those five people, they didn't make it back.

Adam - What did Amundsen do differently that helped him?

Charlotte - Scott and Amundsen had totally different ambitions in getting to the South Pole. Amundsen was about getting there, planting a flag, getting back. Scott also was about getting there, planting a flag and getting back, but along the way he was really interested in doing science. So actually on the way back from the South Pole they stopped to collect geological specimens, for example, at a point when they didn't realise how much they were endangering themselves. And so they just had different ambitions and for Amundsen it was absolutely a race. So he set about finding out what was the quickest way to get there, whereas for Scott it was a much bigger type of project. So they were just approaching it in really very different ways, and where Scott had lots of bad look, Amundsen was taking an untried, untested, unmapped route. There was an element of luck there that there was actually a route through for him.


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