Choppy waters with floating life ring buoy

Extreme environments research

Explore our work in extreme environments, 1 of our areas of expertise within the Sport and Exercise Science research area

Humans are often required to exercise, work and live in environments where they will encounter extremes of heat, cold, humidity and altitude. This is increasingly common as our planet warms and extreme weather events become more frequent.

Our sports and human performance testing facilities enable us to simulate these extreme environments in a controlled way to investigate the physiological and psychological responses to some of the harshest environments on Earth. We're also increasing our understanding of the role that these environmental stressors play in the development, prevention, and treatment of some chronic diseases.

Our extreme environments research informs how people are selected, protected and prepared to enter such environments and continually pushes the boundaries of where humans can play, explore, work, live and thrive.

Our work is split between fundamental and applied research. Our research directly impacts the fields of sport, industry, health, emergency services, military, expeditions and Olympic and Paralympic athletes.

Our research has informed prominent drowning prevention campaigns, such as the Royal National Lifeboat Institute's (RNLI) ‘Respect the Water’ campaign and the Maritime and Coastguard Agency's (MCA) lifejacket safety advice. It's also used to educate children, medics and search and rescue personnel.

Our research covers the following topics

  • Survival in the sea

We focus on human responses to immersion and survival in cold water. This work has provided the underpinning evidenced for water safety campaigns and techniques to prevent drowning in children and adults. We've developed International standards and designed and tested safety clothing and equipment used by people entering water, including emergency breathing systems used by workers in the oil industry and equipment to assist in underwater escape from helicopters. We've also developed search and surveillance techniques for lifeguards and informed the search and rescue practice of those trying to recover individual from the water.

 

  • Thermal environments

We research the responses and adaptations of individuals in hot and cold environments and develop approaches to protect people in these environments. Our recent projects have included the thermal and movement impact on troops wearing prototype operational equipment, assessment of physiological status of those suffering from Non-Freezing Cold Injuries (NFCIs) and optimising the adaptions to thermal stressors. Our research in this area has been used in the development of performance strategies used by many athletes including Olympic champions. This work is also increasing our awareness of the effects of climate change on sport and of the role that exposure to hot and cold environments can play in the treatment and prevention of some chronic diseases.

 

  • High altitude and hypoxia

We're conducting fundamental work examining the physiological and psychological effects of high altitude, or reduced oxygen, environments. We're also examining the way in which environmental  stressors such as hypoxia function in combination with other stressors, as often occurs in the natural world (e.g. high attitude and cold) as well as the way in which our adaption to one stressor (e.g. hypoxia) affects our tolerance to another stressor (e.g. heat). This work also has direct relevance for individuals who may be exposed to such environments in combination or in quick succession e.g. athletes, explorers and the military. Our research with inspiratory muscle training has aided high altitude expeditions and our work with clinical groups in hypoxic environments is increasing our understanding of the role of oxidative stress and inflammation in chronic disease.

 

Funders

We've received funding for our research from a variety of groups including the Ministry of Defence, Royal Air Force, Royal National Lifeboat Institute, Maritime and Coastguard Agency, English Institute of Sport, International Triathlon Union, Fédération Internationale de Natation, and various industry partners.

Publication highlights

Cognitive performance is associated with cerebral oxygenation and peripheral oxygen saturation, but not plasma catecholamines, during graded normobaric hypoxia
Experimental Physiology, 2019, DOI: 10.1113/EP087647, Thomas Benjamin Williams, Dr Jo Corbett, Professor Terry McMorris, Dr John Young, Dr Matt Dicks, Soichi Ando, Professor Richard Thelwell, Professor Mike Tipton, Dr Joseph Costello

Core temperature in triathletes during swimming with wetsuit in 10 °C cold water
 Sports Medicine, Volume 7, Issue 6, 2019, DOI: 10.3390/sports7060130, Jørgen Melau, Maria Mathiassen, Trine Stensrud, Professor Mike Tipton, Jonny Hisdal

A 10-year descriptive analysis of UK Maritime and Coastguard data on lifejacket use and drowning prevention
Safety Science, Volume 109, 2018, pages 195-200, DOI: 10.1016/j.ssci.2018.06.003, Kirsten Pointer, Dr Gemma Milligan, Kirsty L. Garratt, Steve P. Clark, Professor Mike Tipton

Acute anxiety predicts components of the cold shock response on cold water immersion: toward an integrated psychophysiological model of acute cold water survival
Frontiers in Psychology, Volume 9, 2018, DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00510, Martin J. Barwood, Dr Jo Corbett, Dr Heather Massey, Professor Terry McMorris, Professor Mike Tipton, Dr Chris Wagstaff

Discover our areas of expertise

Extreme environments is 1 of 3 areas of expertise in the Sport and Exercise Science research area. Explore the others here.

Individual, occupational and organisational performance

We investigate the factors influencing the effective function of organisations, and provide the evidence needed to develop safe and fair policies and standards for people working in arduous or physically-demanding occupations.
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Physical activity, health and rehabilitation

We're investigating ways to increase physical activity, how to rehabilitate individuals from conditions that prevent them from being active, and exploring the positive benefits of physical activity in a variety of clinical and non-clinical contexts.
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Interested in a PhD in Sport & Exercise Science?

Browse our postgraduate research degrees – including PhDs and MPhils – at our Sport & Exercise Science postgraduate research degrees page.