There’s a reason trekking to Antarctica is thought be like landing on another planet: The environment has absolutely no patience for humans. With a bone-chilling climate fond of torturing visitors, you’d better have a good reason to be there. (Like science!) Oddly enough, frostbite may be the least of your concerns. If you’re considering a research journey, consider these other, lesser-known dangers lurking in the coldest place on Earth.
1. Death from Above
You will never see a singing, dancing skua in a Disney film. These birds are reputed to be absolute savages, dive-bombing unsuspecting prey (like scientists) with claws outstretched. Explorers have been pecked, scratched, and generally terrorized by these avian bullies. If you think a bird can’t do a lot of damage, think twice: A biologist was once knocked unconscious by one.
2. A Melting Runway
Landing aircraft on the ice runways near key stations is delicate business. Unlike commercial landing strips, there’s no asphalt or concrete to touch down on. Instead, pilots aim for a stretch of prepared, smoothed blue ice that doesn’t accumulate large amounts of snow due to increased wind and evaporation. But in 2013, the unusually warm weather had created a surface too soft for planes to land on. That meant occupying staff had to do without key deliveries of goods like fruit, toiletries, or irony: construction of one runway in 2008 had workers taking breaks to de-ice their equipment.
3. Dental Improvisation
Despite the food there being sugar-rich to give researchers energy,visits from full-time dentists at the bottom of the world are sporadic at best. Physicians stationed in Antarctica receive some basic dental training, but if complications arise, you might wind up with a mouthful of elephant seal tusk. That’s what happened to one chef in the 1950s who lost a portion of his dentures. Without the standard materials available for a typical repair, his attending physician used the tusk to fashion a temporary fix that became permanent—the man didn’t have money for a proper replacement.
Glaciers in Antarctica are a given, and nature has turned some of them into a trap from an Indiana Jones movie. Huge fractures can go down dozens or hundreds of feet, covered with a veneer of snow: unsuspecting vehicles or boots can sink into one without having time to react. If you’re lucky, someone who’s already covered your path may have put out a red flag (or robot) to warn you of impending doom.
5. Seal Bites
The various species of seals in the Antarctic usually dine on penguins, but humans will do in a pinch. Sometimes weighing up to 990 pounds, the predators have even been known to turn on themselves. While deaths from attacks are rare (though one did occur in 2003), seal bites can be serious enough to require medical attention: their mouths are home to a variety of unpleasant bacteria and they’re capable of exerting more crushing power than a canine bite.
The Antarctic sun can loom for 24 hours at a stretch some days, reflecting harshly off the snow and creating real opportunity for sunburn even in frigid temperatures. Expeditions often mandate sunscreen be worn on exposed skin; the real concern is with snow blindness, or sunburn of the eyes. Without appropriate eyewear [PDF], the potent UV rays bouncing off the surface from a depleted ozone layer can burn your corneas. (Early explorers had a remedy that’s since gone out of style: they dripped cocaine in their eyes.)
7. Trench Foot
Getting around in miles of snow usually means getting your feet wet. Because visitors have trouble keeping their lower extremities dry, the cold, damp conditions can result in trench foot, an unwelcome bit of ick common in World War I. Untreated, trench foot can lead to gangrene and potentially amputation, which would make it substantially more difficult to run away from a flock of advancing skuas.