Human Hibernation
April 28, 2014

Human Hibernation

Many were shocked by the survival of one boy after a five-hour flight to Hawaii from San Jose, California. His survival was so incredible because he was not your average plane passenger. According to CNN, he climbed into the wheel well of the plane and survived negative temperatures and oxygen deprivation at over 29,000 feet up in the air, where he essentially hibernated for the duration of the flight.

This teenager escaped death many times in his journey to Hawaii. The first escape was when he was stowed away safely in the wheel well. There is not a lot of extra room in the plane around where the wheels tuck in for flight, so he easily could have been crushed.

This teen also experienced two very deadly conditions while up in the air: hypoxia and hypothermia. Hypoxia is when the body doesn’t have enough oxygen. The higher one goes in altitude, the less oxygen there is. This is because the air molecules are not compressed together under the weight of more air molecules as they are at lower levels. The air composition is still the same, but there is just less composing it. This is why it is harder to run on mountains. When the body doesn’t have enough oxygen, it causes a person to pass out. In this hibernal state, a person’s organs fall asleep in order to preserve the body’s need for oxygen in basic functions. Inside the cabin of a plane, however, the air is pressurized and heated to ensure the passengers are kept safe from these harsh conditions.

Similar to the reasons that there is less oxygen at high altitudes, there is less heat as well. This is caused by the lower pressure. Heat is energy, and molecules at a lower pressure don’t have as much energy as those at a higher pressure. As such, the air can become as cold as -80 degrees Fahrenheit at the altitude that planes fly. This is nearly impossible for a human being to survive unless they have proper gear. A person could die in as few as 20 minutes with a core body temperature of a mere 32 degrees Fahrenheit, and the possible survival time only shrinks as temperature get cooler. Quick changes in air pressure can also cause a person to get decompression sickness, which is what divers get when they return to the surface too quickly. Entering into a state of hypothermia would be exactly what allowed this teenager to survive this flight, because hypothermia redirects the warmth in the blood away from the extremities of your fingers and toes and toward the core where the vital organs are located.

Finally, because this boy was essentially hibernating and unconscious, it is also a miracle that when the landing gear opened, he did not just fall out of the plane from hundreds of feet up in the air. He was not conscious until an hour after the plane had landed. It is not yet clear whether or not this teen will suffer any long-term effects from the oxygen deprivation, but it is a miracle that in the short-term he made it so far.

Image Credit: Thinkstock

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