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The 300 Club is the most southerly club under the planet (Source: Chris Danals /National Science Foundation)

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The coolest club on Earth

Tuesday 25th August 2015 1:40 pm

There are some pretty exclusive ‘clubs’ around. You know, there are only a few hundred people who have ever left a spacecraft to enter the cold vacuum of space for a walk — and that’s a very exclusive club.

A slightly less exclusive club is the ‘300 Club’ — but it’s still pretty cool. The entry requirements are brutally simple, and a bit scary.

You join this club only by exposing your skin to a sudden temperature change of slightly more that 300 Fahrenheit degrees. That’s over 180 Centigrade degrees.

It’s also the most southerly club on the planet. This traditional winter ritual happens down in the Antarctic, or to be more specific, at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station.

It’s do-it-yourself entertainment for the lonely Antarctic residents, cut off from the rest of the world, in the depths of winter. This is the most remote base where we have humans — and by “most remote” I mean anywhere in the known universe, including the International Space Station.

There are about 50 people there, and for eight out of every 12 months, there’s no way in or out.

The 300 Club has a number of prerequisites. First, the government meteorologist has to proclaim that the outside air temperature is officially a bit colder than minus 100°F (about -73.3°C).

Then, inside the station, they crank up the sauna to a bit hotter than 200°F (about 93.3°C). You get in the sauna, naked apart from insulated boots, and sweat it out for a few minutes. Then, you towel away the sweat and go outside for a breath of fresh air. Wearing only the boots, you slowly trot out of the sauna, out of the station in the minus 100°F, loop around the actual geographic South Pole, and then back inside again. It takes a few minutes.

The experience is not exactly comfortable. Back in 2006, the then-South Pole winter site manager, Andy Martinez, said: “It just felt like somebody was hitting me with a tennis racket full of needles.”

Mind you, on the day he did it, there was a slight wind. So the wind chill factor made the -75.5°C air temperature feel like -97.7°C.

So how do you survive the extreme heat of the 200°F (about 93.3°C) sauna? After all, you can cook an egg or a steak at that temperature.

The difference is that we humans can sweat. Provided that you are hydrated enough, you will sweat enormous amounts. As this sweat evaporates, you get cooling on your skin. Mind you, once you get dehydrated and stop sweating, you will rapidly overheat.

Of course, the sauna has to be a dry sauna, so that the sweat on your skin can evaporate. If the air inside the sauna is heavy with water, then the water in the sweat on your skin cannot evaporate — and again, you’ll overheat.

What about the extreme cold of less than minus 100°F (about -73.3°C)? When your skin gets exposed to this low a temperature, your body tries to not lose any heat. So the blood vessels in the skin close up very suddenly, and a lot of blood is immediately shunted or relocated internally. Unfortunately, this means that your heart is exposed to a massive overload of blood — but only for a few seconds. Even so, you need a healthy heart with a lot of reserve capacity to give this a try.

A mate of mine, Darryn Schneider, was down at the South Pole, installing and working on the underground AMANDA Telescope (Antarctic Muon and Neutrino Detector Array.) It was the precursor to Ice Cube Neutrino Telescope, which Schneider also worked on.

Ice Cube Telescope is some 94 strings of optical sensors, buried vertically in the ice. They run from about 1.5 to 2.8 kilometres below the surface of the ice, and they detect neutrinos.

Back in early July, in the year 2000, the temperature dropped to -100oF. So Schneider tried out for the 300 Club. He survived the +200°F sauna, toweled off the sweat, and walked the length of the tunnel to the outside world — which was waiting to whack him him at minus 100°F. Then he made his big mistake.

Instead of walking the few hundred metres to the South Pole, he ran. After a while, he began to feel a little chilly, and came back into the warmth. And then it hit. He began coughing.

Schneider was lucky — because he had a cough only for the rest of the day. He wasn’t the only one. Some of the people who ran for the Club event had a cough for a few days. They had what they called, “frost bite of the lungs”.

So slow and steady, and a decidedly thick skin, may just get you into the 300 Club, if you’re game …

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This blog first appeared on Dr Karl's Great Moments in Science

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