Rory O'Sullivan
January 2017.

How do people on long scientific expeditions deal with the isolation and the boredom?

2 answers

The interesting thing about doing fieldwork, especially in remote places like Arctic is that your life gets really simple, you don’t have a whole lot of needs because you don’t have much with you anyway. The thing you most looking forward to everyday is, in fact, eating. While you are in the field, one of the most important things is to control your diet and eat well, so food preparation becomes an important part of your everyday life.

I rarely feel bored doing field work. A lot of measurements that you take each day consume a lot of time (say 12 hours) and therefore your day passes very quickly. So, when we are talking about boredom it usually occurs during that time when you’re ‘trapped’ inside. For example, due to bad weather conditions and you may not be able to collect measurements that day.

The longest expedition I went in was 6 weeks long, in Greenland and we stayed in tents the entire time. It was a challenging because you don’t get to shower and going to the bathroom isn’t easy. For me, living in tents for that long is interesting, how this experience changes your way of life: for example, your thoughts and dreams change a lot when you’re out there since you don’t have the usual routine and stimulants you are used at home.

It really makes a big difference when you travel with a good group of people, especially if you get along with them. We play a lot of cards and other games. We also bring alcohol and it is part of our evening life after the fieldwork.

While I was in Greenland, I did not have an access to the internet. All we had was a Telex machine, from which it was quite expensive to send a message home. You would write a short note home during the expedition, but that is pretty much it. During the camping expeditions, the Internet is inaccessible. However, this is not always the case, occasionally you may stay in the community. From my experience, most of the expeditions did not have any access to the internet.

Personally, apart from the professional equipment and all the necessities, I take music with me, as well as books. Without an access to the internet, without being online all the time I start to read a lot more. I also like listening to music during my expeditions, especially in the really remote places, because the sound you can hear is the only one you can ‘create’ yourself. In Greenland, camped on the ice sheet, there is no animal life around so, naturally, it gets really quiet and music is your only friend. 

Comment answer

I would say boredom on expedition in the ocean or on ice is never an issue because there is plenty of work to be done. Field work, as we call it, demands lots of energy, people work shifts and that is very tiring, usually there is not much time to rest. Sometimes there is so called cruising time, when the boat spends few days reaching working location. Even then people keep busy with organizing labs, looking at some data, fixing technical issues etc. There could also be meetings organized, scientists show presentations, discussing different questions and hypothesis.

Even if you get some free time on the boat, there are usually DVDs available to watch, gym, books etc. to keep you entertained.

Isolation is another thing, which experienced scientists don't see as a problem. Modern technology allow us to have access to an email, which helps to keep contact with the rest of the world. There are other people on an expedition with you, at some point you can get tired of seeing same people for weeks, but you know this is not forever and in fact expeditions last relatively short time. 

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