Coronavirus: What the nine-month winter isolation in Antarctica can teach us


Living in complete isolation with outside temperatures up to 80 degrees below zero, aware that no plane or land vehicle can reach you. This is how a team of approximately 13 researchers and logistic staff at the Italian-French station Concordia in Antarctica lives every year during the so-called "winter-over", the winter expedition of the National Research Program in Antarctica (PNRA), managed by ENEA for planning and logistic organization and by the CNR for scientific planning and coordination.

“With due  differences, the extreme isolation endured by  the Antarctica team can provide useful insights on how to better cope with the restrictions imposed by the coronavirus emergency, " said Denise Ferravante, ENEA psychologist and researcher, in charge of recruiting, training and providing psychological support to the winter over team. “This condition is very similar to that of astronauts, so much so that the European Space Agency conducts research at Concordia to prepare for future long-duration space travel", the expert continued.  Among  the stress points in common she highlighted “forced cohabitation, impossibility of leaving, communicating through technological devices”.

Forced cohabitation and territorial behaviour

At Concordia the small group, although living in a space quite large, is comprised by people who don’t choose each other and meet just a few weeks before leaving. They are forced to live together for nine long months without being able to leave and, due to the mandatory isolation, some “territorial” behaviours may arise, Ferravante pointed out.

Just as in the animal world, we perceive our spaces as our “territory”, and our working desk belongs to this territorial space; the fact that others occupy our space may be perceived as disrespect or violation of one’s privacy and trigger an aggressive reaction.

This could also take place in our homes during prolonged temporal isolation. “In order to counteract these effects, you need to develop tolerance, smooth things over, compose quarrels through dialogue, open confrontation or, when not possible, postpone it at a later time, when emotions are more manageable and you can give vent to your emotions and allow the other to adopt less hurtful behaviours, " the expert advised.

Communications and relationships

The winter expeditions in Antarctica have shown that the possibility of using new technologies to communicate with the outside world has had significant benefits for physical and psychological well-being among the team, as has the use of pcs, tablets, telephones and other devices during this weeks of forced isolation.

Winter-Over Syndrome

It is not uncommon for the Winter-Over Syndrome to occur in the nine months of isolation with symptoms of nervousness, apathy, impaired concentration and memory, insomnia and nightmares, depressed mood and increased irritability. To counteract these effects, themed evenings, birthday parties, events, various anniversaries are organized and, in the middle of winter, which corresponds to our summer equinox, all the bases celebrate midwinter for a few days.

Choice and opportunity

Trying to celebrate anniversaries and creating small events can also help deal with the confinement due to COVID-19. The isolation we have been living has been forced upon us; it isn’t a choice as in Antarctic expeditions. That’s why, according to Ferravante, a shift in perspective is advisable to see this quarantine as a period that, despite the difficulties, we have chosen to spend for our growth by taking care of ourselves and our loved ones, reconsidering priorities and activating personal resources.

“We can reconnect with our inner self by focusing on our needs, our emotions, our fragility. Because - she said - in the void determined by the absence of the thousand tasks with which we have filled our lives, there is a fullness provided by the opportunity for personal, psychological and spiritual growth".

In fact, despite the difficulties posed by isolation, extreme temperatures and darkness, participants in Antarctica expeditions report feelings of personal growth.

“The Coronavirus has made us realize how fragile and vulnerable we are. But it’s our fragility that makes us more adaptable, because as the concept of resilience clearly shows, resilient materials can withstand shocks and stresses and then spring back into shape. So – Ferravante concluded - we should use the trauma that we are experiencing as an opportunity for transformation, to let our life force flow and to release our creative energy".


For more information please contact:

Denise Ferravante, ENEA – Antarctica Technical Unit,

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