With increased tourism and research in our oceans, what are the chances people can survive an accident like the recent Costa Concordia disaster? What if the air temperature is only 5°C? According to Dr. Fabien Basset of Memorials School of Human Kinetics and Recreation (HKR), there are more and more cruise ships visiting the Arctic where cold air temperatures compound the risks for survival even after passengers reach a lifeboat.
Until now, the majority of studies on cold exposure involve very cold conditions where people reach hypothermia (35°C core temperature) within 4-6 hours. Ethically, researchers are not allowed to let subjects reach that point so theres a lack of data on the physiological consequences of prolonged shivering.
However, Dr. Basset and graduate student Zachery Hynes are co-investigators on a recent study that intends to fill this gap. The effects a 24-hour Arctic survival simulation on human physiology and cognitive function was led by
the Maritime Arctic Survival Science and Engineering Research Team (MASSERT). Dr. Basset and a team of researchers are looking at the effects of shivering on performing the basic survival skills necessary to signal for help.
Conducted at Brock University in Ontario, subjects were exposed to moderate cold (7.5°C) for 24 hours while wearing light, cotton coveralls. The researchers wanted the subjects to shiver, activating their cold response, without losing so much heat that they reached hypothermia.
The goal was to push subjects to the limit of what they could tolerate for 24 hours and find out how shivering could be sustained during prolonged exposure. They also looked at cognitive performance and how it would be affected by long-term cold exposure, if people could perform the basic survival skills necessary to signal for help after 24 hours, how long they could maintain heat balance and what the effects were on major physiological systems.
Dr. Basset admits the subjects were people whod already experienced long-term cold exposure (i.e., Niagara Parks Police and Coast Guard personnel).
We knew that this subject pool may not be representative in terms of fitness and cold experience compared to the target population who might require a mass rescue from a cruise ship or aircraft, said Dr. Basset. But we needed subjects who could psychologically push themselves through the very strenuous experimental protocol and conditions.
Overall, six of the eight subjects tolerated the entire 24-hour exposure. All subjects reported that the combination of environmental conditions and clothing was near or at the point of what they could voluntarily endure. But, the good news is, they were able to sufficiently regulate their body temperature through shivering and movement.
Dr. Basset and the rest of the team also found that cognitive responses for memory, executive control, attention and spatial reasoning were largely unaffected.
The absence of significant changes in cognitive performance over the 24 hours of cold exposure testing is in itself an important finding, given that testing of this type and duration has not been done before, he added. This experiment represents the best case scenario for the average person that is, they are able to protect themselves from very cold air, splashing water, and wind which means they should be capable of surviving while waiting for a rescue team.
Dr. Basset added that MASSERT would like now to determine what could happen to seniors who are the main clientele of the cruise ship industry.