Interview with Doctor Dale Mole – South Pole ‘Submarine’ Doc
When I was flown down to McMurdo at the end of January - to accompany one of my Concordia colleagues in distress (French crew member, Sebastien "ow my eye hurts" Aubin), and to learn Dentistry, I met fellow American Doctor and explorer, Doctor Dale Mole.
Sunday morning coming down
One of the best times I've had down on the ice was a Sunday morning walk we took from McMurdo station out to Castle Rock, around the same area explorers of the past had wandered around 100 years ago. Sadly we arrived back to MacTown just too late for lunch and missed ice-cream.
During the week we had visited Scott's Hut at McMurdo together also - Dale had been as blown away as I had.
"Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship"
I quickly realised that Dale was a kindred spirit - relishing the same challenge as I had, to overwinter in the interior of Antarctica and laugh along the way, appreciating the unique experience.
It's good to think Dale is one of my closest neighbours - I peer out of my window looking directly South - only 1000km or a satellite telephone call away.
Here is looking at you, Dale!
Being a good friend, I asked Dale about his life 'down-under'.
Right now, for the next 8 months - there is no doctor in the world who is living in such similar isolated circumstances and understands what its like to live in the same conditions as I am here at Concordia.
Below is a rare glimpse into Dale's life as the only doctor at the South Pole... enjoy!
Why did you want to go to the South Pole?
I wanted to practice medicine at the South Pole for a number of reasons. I was retiring from a 33 year career in the United States Navy and was looking for something interesting to do. Many years ago I had considered volunteering for Operation Deep Freeze when the Navy was heavily involved in the U.S. Antarctic Program, but for one reason or another that never quite worked out. I also wanted the challenge of providing medical care in one of the world’s most austere, isolated environments. Experiencing life on a station such as this is about as close as one can get on Earth to that of a permanent colony on another planet and I have long had an interest in space travel. This year is also a special time to be at the South Pole since it was 100 years ago that man first attained the pole and as a student of history I didn’t want to miss that.
How did you feel when you arrived at the South Pole?
Initially it was a little overwhelming. The January day on which I arrived was bright and sunny, as well as being fairly warm at only minus 32 degrees centigrade. One of the first things I did was walk over to the geographic South Pole for a picture and to stand near where Amundsen and Scott had stood almost exactly 100 years earlier. When you think about the struggle and sacrifice made by so many; Amundsen, Scott, Shackleton, and others, one cannot help but feel a tremendous sense of privilege and honor to be standing at the spot where all the lines of longitude converge.
What do you think about over-wintering? Are you excited, intrepid, anxious?
It has been said by some that the only true “Polies” are those who winter over, everyone else is a tourist. I am not sure I would go so far as to endorse that viewpoint, but I will be here for the better part of 10 months and that is a very long time. In the past 33 years I visited over 62 countries and lived in four, so I am frequently travelling. I knew by coming to the South Pole that for almost an entire year I would not be travelling more than 2 miles from this very spot, so it was quite a big adjustment in terms of mobility. Once the station closed to the outside world for the winter, we were truly marooned. The biggest issue weighing on my mind was the potential to have a patient whose needs exceeded the capabilities of our clinic. Evacuating a patient from the South Pole in winter is about as easy as conducting a medical evacuation from the surface of Mars.
Whats it like going to sleep at the South Pole?
Interesting question! While I was still taking acetazolamide to prevent altitude sickness, I slept fairly well. Once I stopped, however, I would frequently awake during the night gasping for air. Although the station is physically about 9300 feet above sea level, the atmosphere bulges at the equator and is thinner at the poles as a result of the Earth’s rotation, so the physiological altitude is really 1000 to 1800 feet higher depending upon the barometric pressure. Although the percentage of oxygen in the atmosphere remains the same, the partial pressure of oxygen is decreased resulting in a lower level of oxygen saturation in the blood. A drop in oxygen content in the blood produces the symptoms associated with air hunger. Fortunately those symptoms resolved after a few weeks once I became acclimatized to the higher altitude.
It is currently dark at the South Pole - how long will it be dark for?
We last saw the full disk of the Sun on 21 March, the vernal equinox. Our next glimpse of the Sun will be around 21 September, the autumnal equinox. There a periods of twilight when the Sun sets and rises, but most of the winter will be dark except for the Moon and stars. Without moonlight it is difficult to navigate outside, which is way we set up lines of flags to follow as we move between buildings.
Is it true the hospital at the South Pole Station is called Club Med? Is there a story behind the name?
It is true the clinic at the South Pole is called Club Med, but the history behind that remains lost in the mists of time. I would not call our medical facility a hospital, but rather an infirmary since we are primarily a clinic with a couple of inpatient beds for a patients who might be too sick to remain in their rooms and require some light nursing care or observation.
What do you eat at the South Pole Station?
We are fortunate to have pretty good food at the South Pole! We have a 2 year supply of food on hand, most of which is stored outside in our “deep freeze.” The only fresh food we have is supplied by our greenhouse and is hydroponically grown. We have 3 full-time chefs and have 3 meals a day except for Sunday, which is a day off. On Sunday it is every man for himself. Fortunately for the culinary challenged, there is a “left over” refrigerator filled with remnants of previous meals which can be reheated in the microwave.
How do you spend your average day?
My usual day starts at 0500 with a 3 to 4 mile run on a treadmill in the fitness room. This is followed by a quick breakfast in the galley, then a check to see what e-mails have arrived overnight while the satellites were up. We usually have leadership or safety meetings during the day. Our usual clinic hours are from 0730 until 1700, but I obviously see patients outside those times. Any spare time during the workday is filled with inventory, equipment checks, drafting and submitting reports, providing training for our Emergency Response Teams, etc. I also maintain my knowledge of Emergency Medicine via continuing medical education online when technically possible.
The South Pole is actually quite high in altitude - do you feel any of the effects?
The biggest effect of altitude is the decease in maximal exercise capacity. Even with physical training, maximal heart rate and myocardial (heart muscle) oxygen demand in diminished at altitude, so ascending a flight of stairs will make you feel more winded than would be true at sea level.
You used to work as a doc on submarines - how different/ similar is it to living in the South Pole station?
In many ways the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station is similar to being on the world’s biggest submarine, especially with all the windows covered to reduce the extraneous light which would interfere with some of the scientific experiments. Of course there is so much more room here than on a real submarine, but many things are the same. Similar things are no ambient light by which to determine day or night, shared bathrooms, “submarine” (2 minute) showers, little communication with the outside world, limited medical resources, movie nights, and generally good food. Perhaps the biggest difference is that I can go outside when I feel like doing so.
Is there any human psychology experiments/ research going on there now?
We have no medical experiments occurring at the South Pole. Psychological screening is done prior to deployment and that information resides in a data base. By looking at problems that arise and outcomes, one could certainly refine the screening process for isolated, small groups which might have application elsewhere.
What about other research - can you tell me about some of the other natural sciences research at the South Pole?
Research is basically divided into astronomical and earth science research projects. As far as astronomy is concerned, we have two radio telescopes looking for microwave remnants of the birth of the universe. The dry atmosphere, four percent humidity, and radio silent environment at the South Pole provides ideal conditions for these sorts of telescopes. We also have a neutrino telescope, Project Ice Cube, looking for interactions between neutrinos, produced at the time of the Big Bang, and frozen water molecules. Earth science research includes meteorology, seismology, atmospheric gas analysis, and aurora observation.
What is the current weather at the South Pole?
We are experiencing a bit of a warm spell. It is minus 60 degrees Centigrade with 8 knot winds and cloudy conditions. The forecast for the next week is 5-6 days of windy conditions with blowing snow and warmer temperatures, up to minus 45 degrees. Almost time to break out the beach clothing!
Any funny stories from the winter time at the South Pole now?
Unfortunately, no stories that I can share with a general audience. One thing I found amusing when I first arrived were the exterior doors on the elevated station. They are all thick freezer doors; but in this case they are designed to keep the heat in and the cold out.
Below is a selection of photos of Life at the South Pole - shared by Dale over the past few months.
If anyone wants to follow Dale's week to week living, please find more information at his own blog:
Song of the day:
As time goes by (features in the film, Casablanca by 'Sam' - Dooley Wilson)
Today's weather report:
|Temperature||-65.7 °C||Windchill||-84.9 °C|
|Dew Point||-74 °C||Pressure||637.8 hPa|
|Wind Speed||4 m/s||Relative Humidity||31 %|
|7.7 knots||Wind Origin||149°|