We're in the Third Quarter of the Pandemic. Antarctic Researchers, Mars Simulation Scientists and Navy Submarine Officers Have Advice For How to Get Through It

The hut of Sunniva Sorby and Hilde Fålun Strøm in Svalbard, Norway. Credit - Courtesy Hearts in the Ice
McMurdo Station, a research base in Antarctica, 2,415 miles south of Christchurch, New Zealand, is a strange place to go to get out of the COVID-19 pandemic. But it's kind of a home for Pedro Salom since he took a washing-up job there in 2001 when he was 24 years old. As deputy area manager on more than a dozen Antarctic missions, Salom has grown used to the ups and downs of Salom's life on the ice. There is a surge of excitement when newcomers enter the camp, the feeling of isolation from the rest of the world as the earth and sea disappear in the endless night from April to August. and the joy when the sun finally appears behind the mountains again. He's also been around long enough to know that many people will have problems at the end of their assignments - whether they have been with McMurdo for over a year or even a few months.
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"One of the things I'm looking for is dramatic changes in people's habits," says Salom. “When someone goes to the gym at 6:30 am every day and usually comes for lunch at exactly 11:45 am and that person suddenly misses the gym or starts taking out food or not showing up for lunch that's a serious flag on mine anyway Head. "
Researchers have a term for what Salom describes: the third quarter phenomenon. The phenomenon (still in 1991), first named by researchers studying people who live in cold regions, is characterized by mood swings in people who are almost done with a long period of isolation. Those affected often feel anxious, withdrawn, and increasingly vulnerable. Researchers have not been able to definitively prove the phenomenon, partly because its effects can vary from person to person. However, anecdotes and research suggest that people often travel 75% of the way through an isolating event. While researchers studying the phenomenon have focused on explorers like Salom, what they learned about it could now be applicable to a much larger group of people: those who found themselves during the COVID-19 pandemic isolating, which is at least the case in some parts of the world, may be about three-quarters through - provided vaccine launches proceed briskly and the shots work as expected.
Pedro Salom at McMurdo Station Photo courtesy of the National Science Foundation
Nathan Smith, a Manchester University researcher who studied how people behave in extreme environments, says that "the psychological and social experience of monotony, sensory deprivation, social isolation, and closeness to others is very similar" to those who do People likely experience isolating during COVID-19. "For some people, this phase of the third quarter can be a real challenge," he says.
The third quarter phenomenon can cause some to experience large mood swings and change their relationship with other people. For example, Sunniva Sorby, 59, and Hilde Fålun Strøm, 53, said last March they had a hard time seeing the end of their stay in an uninsulated 90-year-old trapper's cabin with no electricity or running water in Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago at the arctic circle. The two climate change researchers had spent more than seven months, much of it in the darkness of the Arctic, collecting valuable data by observing wildlife, taking surface ice and land temperatures with a drone, and taking ice core and phytoplankton samples. But as the end of their stay drew near, Sorby and Strøm's excitement at seeing their loved ones again was tempered by a wave of unexpected fear. They worried about many things: whether they would finish the research they had started together, how ending their mission might affect their friendship, and whether they would ever stop packing to leave. "In the dark we are completely dependent on each other. And when the light comes back, the question arises how much care is needed from the other," says Sorby. "It can create uncertainty."
Polar explorers aren't the only people who spend long periods of time in relative isolation. Take submarines like Matt Kilby, a 29-year-old former U.S. Navy lieutenant who served three times aboard the U.S. Navy. Florida. Although he says the ship was more spacious than expected, many interiors can still feel cramped, especially for someone like him who is 6 to 4 inches tall. Life on board the ship, which spent 107 days underwater in a 110-day mission, sometimes felt like Groundhog Day, the Bill Murray classic about a TV weatherman stuck in a time warp, says Kilby. While he had his crewmembers as companions, Kilby could only communicate with his friends and family, including his fiancée, via email, which sometimes made him fearful of being forgotten. In the final week of any given long-term submarine mission, Kilby says, the crew was prone to irritation. “It's almost as well known that when someone blows you up, it's just like, 'Hey man, it's like last week, everyone's just like that. 'So everyone almost agrees that this is the last week and that everyone is grumpy. "
Participants in projects that simulate long-term space travel in order to better understand the possible psychological effects say they have observed the phenomenon. Shannon Rupert, a 61-year-old former professor of biology and environmental science, now heads the Mars Desert Research Station in Hanksville, Utah, operated by the nonprofit space company Mars Society - home to hundreds of people on the Red Planet. To mimic life on a space station, the spaces are cramped - Rupert compares the bedrooms to closets - meaning you can never really escape the five or more other participants or be out of earshot of their conversations. Even if participants venture outside, they have to wear bulky spacesuits. Participants can go through the entire experience without feeling the wind on their face.
Rupert often warns participants that the project will be three-quarters more difficult. Rupert, who herself has taken part in more than a dozen simulated Mars missions, varying in length from weeks to a few months, advises participants to share their pet sleeves early to avoid fighting on the street (she hates when People brush their teeth, for example the sink). During a simulation, two crew members were beaten after one was caught displacing the group's hot chocolate mixture, she says. "The little irritations that didn't bother you ... suddenly become out of order," says Rupert. "In the last few days, you'll be happy to say," Dude, get out of here. "In extreme cases, some participants left the simulation early. Rupert adds that mental fatigue during this stage often leads to accidents and injuries, and she fears that the same phenomenon related to COVID-19 could lead people to become social Refrain from distancing and other preventive measures when they tire of following public health guidelines.
Mars simulation participants on Devon Island in the Canadian Arctic Photo courtesy of the Mars Society
In other words, the fact that we are almost out of the woods of the pandemic - almost thanks to ongoing mass vaccination efforts - could present new psychological hurdles. If you've been feeling particularly irritable, unhappy, or otherwise sick recently, understanding these potential psychological forces at work can be helpful. "When you know [isolation] is about to end, it makes sense to conserve some of your resources and save them in case you may return to a more dynamic and changeable environment," says Smith, a University of Manchester researcher. It is important, however, that we all remain vigilant as we are far from herd immunity and until then the virus can easily reassert itself. In fact, social distancing can get more psychologically difficult before it gets easier, as vaccinated people are likely to lead more normal lives in front of those of us who aren't vaccinated.
The adventurous souls who spoke to TIME about their experiences with Q3 Syndrome relied on remarkably similar coping mechanisms, all centered on the thought of focusing on their mission. For Sorby and Strøm, this means positive action to combat climate change. for Kilby it was to serve his country; For Rupert, it's about better preparing humanity to become a species of interstellar explorer. and for Salom to keep McMurdo Station safe. For those of us isolating due to COVID-19, the goal is simpler, but no less noble: to reduce the spread of the virus and keep as many people as possible from getting sick.
But even seasoned professionals can sometimes find that their willpower is weakening. When this happens, the people who spoke with TIME recommend focusing on the here and now - sticking to a routine that provides a sense of control or appreciating the little joys you find along the way can. Solom says his life has been enriched by going outside to hike, sniff the stars, or observe the Aurora Australis (the southern sibling of the Northern Lights). Routine training was important, as was his pursuit of fun projects: hosting quiz nights; Opening of “pop-up restaurants” and organization of pine wood derbies.
Solom's time in Antarctica also gave him a greater understanding of the importance of mental health. It can be difficult to speak up and ask for help, says Salom, but it's important to realize that mental health is very similar to physical health: “Intervening early and being involved is much better than trying later, wasted time balance. when someone is in a really bad place. "
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