The Population of Other Hostile Places

In the last post I calculated that the current population of outer space was about five, if you added up all the person-years spent up there.  What about other difficult places to live?

Under the Ocean

This was another of those 50s skiffy dreams – that there would soon be cities under the sea as Humanity’s Manifest Destiny took it into every corner of the earth.  It wasn’t clear why people would be living there when there is so much room in, say, North Dakota, but that was the vision.

Today there are only two regularly used underwater habitats: the NOAA Aquarius Reef Base and the Jules Undersea Lodge.  Here’s the Aquarius base:

The Aquarius Reef Base

It’s about 50 feet down in a coral reef off the Florida Keys.  It has bunks for 6, and teams can go for 10 days at a time.  It’s actually about the same size as the Mir space station (350 m^3), although zero-gee lets one use a lot more of the volume.   The base allows researchers to spend 6 times as much time on the reef than if they had to dive from the surface.  In 2010 it’ll be occupied for about 81 days, so if there are 6 people there at a time, that’s 1.3 person-years.  Given that it’s stuck in one place on this reef, it’s scientific value is limited.

It costs ~$1.5 million a year to run, so that’s about ~$1M/person-year.   A tourist trip to the ISS space station costs $20M for 7 days, so that’s about $1B/person-year, 1000X more.  It’s nice to have fresh air only 50 feet away!

The Jules Undersea Hotel is somewhat cheaper: $500/person/day, or $200K/person-year.  It’s in only 20 feet of water, though, and looks a bit sad with its 70s decor:

Common area of lodge – Yes, they even have a VCR

It’s immediately off a dock, and there’s a gift shop!   It’s not exactly the New Frontier.

Real undersea work is already almost entirely done with waldos, as witness the work in capping the BP Deepwater Horizon spill.  There were up to 12 Remotely-Operated-Vehicles down by the well head at a time.  The ROVs seemed to do about as well as manned deep-water submersibles, and didn’t have to spend hours going up and down.  Having real people near these operations is so dangerous and expensive that I doubt we’ll ever see real undersea habitats.


Here’s another place that would kill you quite quickly if you went outside in what you’re wearing right now.   It would take maybe 15 minutes instead of the 2 minutes to drown at Aquarius (and 30 seconds on the ISS), but nevertheless there are a lot of people there doing a huge range of things. The CIA factbook says that there are about 4400 people there in the summer, and 1100 in winter.  At the South Pole itself there are about 200 in summer and 50 in winter:

Current Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, with old dome to the right

The whole building is up on stilts and is designed to direct the wind to scour the snow from underneath it.   The previous bases kept getting buried, but for this one they’ll just jack it up as the snow rises.

The US National Science Foundation spends about $350M a year on Antarctic research, which covers 1200 people in the summer and 300 in the winter.  That comes to about $500K / person-year, so Antarctica is even cheaper than the shallows of the Florida Keys.

High Altitude

The highest manned structure that I could find is the University of Tokyo Atacama Observatory (TAO) in northern Chile, at 5640 m (18,400 feet). (No, there are higher bases!  See at bottom)

Dome for 1 meter scope, shipping containers for electronics

It’s placed so high to maximize infrared observing.  There’s only a 1m scope there now, but a 6.5 m is coming soon.  Power comes from a photovoltaic array at the base of the mountain and a high-temperature superconducting cable.

The site is designed to be remotely operated.  There doesn’t appear to be any place for people to live.  The atmospheric pressure there is about half that at sea level.  Even the construction workers may have gone up for only the day.  5640 m is getting close to the danger zone of 6000 m, which is considered the limit for living for more than a couple of days.  At some point the astronomers are going to start using pressurized cabins in their efforts to get clearer and clearer views, but that hasn’t happened yet.

There have apparently been miner’s camps at 5300 m, and the gold-mining town of La Rinconada, Peru (population 30,000) is at 5100 m.

Thousands of people do climb 8800 m Mt. Everest every year, so if they each spent a day up there, that would count as several person-years at the lower edge of the stratosphere.

Great Depth

The world’s deepest mine is the TauTona Gold Mine in northeast South Africa at 3900 m.  The temperature at the bottom is 60 degrees C (140 deg F), and so it needs to be air-conditioned.  5600 people work in it, and it has 800 km of tunnels.  It only takes an hour to travel up and down, so the miners probably only spend one shift down at a time rather than staying down for months.  The air pressure at the bottom would be 1.5 atmospheres.   It sounds like a hellish place, and it kills about 5 miners a year.   It produced about $120M in gold last year, though, and so will be running for the foreseeable future.

The main permanently manned underground structures are military bunkers, of which the most famous and probably largest is Cheyenne Mountain, 600 m deep in Wyoming.   It used to be the command center of the horrific American ICBM system, but that time of history is thankfully past.  The much reduced missile operations are now run from nearby Peterson Air Force base, and Cheyenne is kept on “warm standby”.


It’s kind of striking where people don’t live.  Cities under the sea? Better done with robots.  In the sky?  More robots.  Deep in the earth?  Only if you fear nuclear attack.  The worst place that people seem drawn to is Antarctica.  Given its spectacular scenery, I’d like to see it myself!

Update  9/20/10: I found a much higher place where people live: the forward Indian army outposts on the Siachen Glacier in the Karakoram Mountains.   Specific positions are highly classified because of the ongoing Siachen Conflict, but the highest admitted is a helipad at 6400 m (21,000 feet) (!).  The area has been fought over for decades by India and Pakistan.  Thousands have been killed, mainly by hypoxia, hypothermia, and avalanches, but active shelling goes on to this day.  The struggle is over some 900 km2 of uninhabitable wasteland, and so is a matter of profound national importance.  There’s occasional talk of withdrawal, but then some other atrocity occurs.  I say they should put some cameras and remotely-operated machine guns up there and let the robots fight it out.  A vivid description of the conflict from Outside magazine is here.  Here is a Pakistani base at Sher:

Fiberglass igloo hut at 6000m, surrounded by garbage and grandeur

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1 Response to The Population of Other Hostile Places

  1. Pingback: 6 Fictional Places You Won’t Believe Actually Exist (Part 2) | Chib

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