Hot suits for the Antarctic

I’ve always wondered about the practicality of powered hot suits for Arctic or Antarctic exploration. When astronauts put on their space suit, they have a relatively lightweight temperature-controlling layer that uses pumped water to regulate their body heat; would something like this be practical for Antarctic conditions? There’s the problem of power, and of course traditional cold-weather gear works, and the resulting suit would only make sense if it was lightweight, but has something like this ever been trialled?

Google throws up some battery-powered heated undershirts; I’m thinking more of a full-body suit, with an enclosed faceplate in order to keep as much heat in as possible. I mention this because I suspect the Antarctic will become a new frontier over the next century, and an environment-controlled suit would allow a workman (for example) to operate indefinitely in the cold weather without freezing or getting sweaty. Perhaps it could draw power from a Sno-Cat, rather than from a bulky power cell built into the suit.

The answer to your cold suit question might not be as high tech as you think it needs to be. Eskimos would wear animal skins that kept them warm and highly water resistant. The furry part would be worn next to the skin and dealt with the perspiration problem assciated with high activity in clothing. And so effective is wearing the right kind of animal skin that just the one layer of clothing would be worn and they would go naked underneath. One layer of clothing allowed them all the freedom of movement needed to execute all the variety of activaties needed in daily life.

When I worked in the North Sea oil fields, the divers used something like this. They were bulky and attached to the diving bell by hoses at all times. We (the surface vessel) pumped hot water thru hoses to the bell, and they drew that through smaller hoses to their individual suits. IIRC, there were two hoses (out and back). I think we circulated and reheated the water. It was so cold at depth that losing the hot water source was considered a dire emergency. The main disadvantage to these was that they were very bulky and hard to work in. I would imagine a similar suit on land would be even tougher to use, due to the weight of the heating fluid itself.

In a slightly related vein, we used a similar system on our ski boat. When we were die-hard skiers, we had a hot water system on our boat that pumped into our wetsuits. It made wintertime waterskiing remarkably comfortable. We would hook up the hose and fill the wetsuit with warm water, then jump overboard with our ski. After a few runs, we’d climb back into the boat and reattach the hose to re-warm ourselves. The only problem was the need to continually reapply the heated water once the skier had gotten wet.

I think the main disadvantage of this type of suit is the problems when losing heat. The wearer is much worse off than if he’d just managed with a good parka.

It would be more efficient (and make the suit lighter) to literally have a hot hair hose taking hot air from the engine heater and circulating it through the suit.

People have been living and working in environments like the Antarctic for long enough that many types of clothing have been tried and used. With the infrastructure there is at the moment, (virtually none), using clothing that doesn’t require an external power source is the best course. Apart from chemical handwarmers, all workers in the area rely on the proper clothing, regular meals and secure shelter for keeping themselves warm and alive.

Electrically heated clothing is fairly common for motorcycle touring.

A small lump of Plutonium-238 would be an ideal heater. It could even be a nearly passive system, with fluid circulating via convection and/or human movement (à la stillsuits). The power source would last a lifetime. It doesn’t even need much shielding.

Electrically heated clothing is fairly popular with the amateur astronomy crowd. Cold, clear winter nights provide excellent observing conditions, but it’s very difficult to stay warm when you’re sitting still for hours in an exposed location peering through an eyepiece. I’ve seen several people blog about constructing their DIY “observing suits,” and more recently a lot of companies are offering products of this nature, usually catering to either bikers or skiers/ice fishers/hunters.

I know several people who do research in Antarctica, one of whom is actually at Palmer Station right now. I’ll have to ask them their take on this subject.

If you’ve got a steady supply of beer, you won’t need any kind of external system to keep your wetsuit filled with warm water. The bottom half, at least.

Wouldn’t this just be inserting a point of failure in a system that currently works pretty well?

Indeed. Electric clothing is readily available, and might be handy for outdoor activities close to camp, but when venturing far away from shelter in the antarctic, self-sufficiency becomes a matter of life or death. Simple insulation is extremely reliable, much more so than an electrical system whose wires and connections are subjected to constant repetitive flexing as the wearer goes about his activities.

You’d be surprised/impressed at how durable stuff like Gerbing’s is.

The problem is they are only so efficient-- I wear them while motorcycling, and even at full blast in the riding wind you’re really only putting out enough heat to keep yourself warm down to 35-40 degrees F. Obviously, take the wind away (or provide better insulation over the gear) you’re going to find significantly better protection, but likely not down to Antarctic levels of chill (oh, and there’s still wind down there, too!). Plus, the portable batteries are still the weak link in the chain-- once the batteries go out, you lose whatever benefit you had, and it gets cold quickly (like, within minutes, even seconds).

That said, I see no fundamental reason why an electrically-heated layer underneath good insulated gear can’t be an improvement over arctic-rated gear. None of this is new tech.

Maybe 25 or 30 years ago, maybe less I saw on TV a suit made of about ½ inch blue foam like material that is worn while nude, sort of like the Eskimo fur comment above, this light weight suit would keep a man warm down into stupid temperatures.

This guy was rolling around in very cold air & snow & his skin temp was just right.

Anyone else remember seeing this?

passive insulation is fail safe. why use an active system that could fail and risk your life.

Passive insulation is bulky enough that it could pose a safety hazard in and of itself–for instance, where manual dexterity is important. Fail safety may be less of an issue when help is nearby.