Winter Over Blog #7 2016
The mid-winter blues have hit, though I believe we have been fortunate (so far) with few storms descending on us, to date, the cold temp (no, not the cold temp of -2 to -6C which I used to remark on in NZ) but the -40C with wind chill dropping temp to -65C and below which make it a whole lot less inviting to even peek outside let alone have a wander to stare at the stars, auroras etc.)
A balmy day
But there is a faint glow on the horizon now that brings a promise of daylight returning. With the coming of August and more people and more flights due in a couple of weeks it brings to the end the brief dalliance with the overwinter growing of some green vegetation.
Currently there are 9 bases in Antarctica that grow some vegetables hydroponically. In the heyday as many as 46 plant production facilities have been in operation down south. That was prior to the Antarctic Treaty and especially post a revamp on “Environmental Protection of the Antarctic Treaty” which saw the introduction of strict requirements aimed at preventing the introduction of non-native species, limiting waste production and increased monitoring requirements. This effectively saw the demise of a large number of the plant production facilities including reasonably sized units at McMurdo and Scott Base.
Scott Base 2004-2005 hydroponics unit then and today (2016) one small bench top unit.
The protocol interpretation is in the hands of the respective countries and is to an extent governed also by the location of the various bases. McMurdo and Scott Base since 2015 have had the benefit of some midwinter flights that can bring in fresh supplies of fruit and vegetables during the April – August /October period. This is not the case for some of the other bases, without the benefit of potential mid-winter flights. These bases continue to run substantial plant production units as a means of supplementing the winter over staff with some much sought after fresh vegetables like tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuces, zucchinis, wide variety of herbs, silver beet, snow peas, cabbages. The reports from such bases as the Koreans who produce over 1kg of fresh greens per day or South Pole base where yields as high as 45kg of fresh greens per week (with 27kg average) are impressive.
But I digress, Scott Base closed its 2x 20ft shipping container units in 2005 (approx. 30 m3). However in 2011-12 a tiny hydroponics unit was set up as a recreational and morale boost for winter over staff.
So when the invitation for interested parties to put their hand up to run this wee unit – I found myself inadvertently raising my hand. More out of curiosity than any other reason.
Looking at the protocol and the previous SOP (standard of operating practice) it dawned on me that could make an entire “balls up “of it and my M.Agr. Sc degree (which I never thought would have an application down here) would receive a serious blemish. Particularly as you are growing stuff from seed, in mid-winter darkness, using artificial lights, but more particularly requiring the use of desalinated water, and in extremely dry conditions of around 20% relative humidity. Coupled with that was the added constraint of the permitted growth period was restricted to mid-winter months only i.e. between May - August.
The flight in May that was to bring the hermetically sealed lettuce and spinach seeds ( really the only plants on the permitted list – well other that coriander and rocket – the latter I loathe and would have had no intention of growing anyway, anywhere.). However the cancellation of May flight meant everything depended upon a successful June flight. Would there be sufficient time to grow anything at all, would they be just sad wispy facsimiles of the actual plants?
The due day 11 June dawned and at 4pm seeds of one variety of spinach and 3 varieties of lettuce were sown direct into wee growing medium blocks. Half of the blocks sown by Andy the Base Water Engineer and half by myself. As it seemed to have developed into a mini competition a secretive phase developed with each looking for the best methods and conditions for optimal germination. In a surprising turn of events both lots showed germination within 48 hours. Then the magic of the female mentality and actually reading the past notes and instructions paid off with holding off putting the wee seedlings into the growing tub only when the first rootlets were showing out of the bottom of the growing medium block ( unlike my learned fellow planter). This proved to be a good move, in retrospect, by both of us. As my half of the planting tub growing just slightly faster than that of my compatriot which resulted in a staggered production supply. Which I will give Andy the benefit of the doubt may have been what he had aimed for all along!
End result was harvesting of the first few lettuce and spinach in 24 days from sowing, and the provision of a decent bowl of salad greens for lunches and dinners a few times a week from 8th July to final harvest of several heads of lettuce during the second week in August, just prior to the August winter week of flights.
By far the feel good factor, as well as the enjoyment of growing and eating your own vege is significant. Many a staff member and McMurdo guest was seen spraying the leaves with water, to stave off the low humidity issue , the odd grazers ( I suspect vegans and vegetarians high on the offending list ) and just those who came and stared at green living stuff growing.
All in all and interesting exercise, still some searching required to locate the rationale behind some of the SOP conditions. Have to date yet to find any robust scientific report that can provide a meaningful assessment of the risk of pollen from a flowering tomato escaping and cross pollinating in the dark of mid-winter and -40C with a lichen that is buried under a 1/2m or more of snow. My guess is that it would be somewhat less than my winning lotto 10 plus times in a row.
Though a species of grass seed has been reported as an escapee up the far reaches of the Antarctica Peninsula where it can be positively tropical and reach above 0.C for extended periods during summer. This does lead to a reflection on another member of this very successful plant species – bamboo. Large amounts of bamboo poles come down each season and are planted as flag poles to mark routes to many and varied destinations. It does give pause for thought perhaps, with the tenaciousness of bamboo, will we see, with global warming, a forest of lines of bamboo sprouting all over the continent in decades to come?
To this ?
And yes those readers who have been hanging out for the recreational activities – yes will endeavour to provide this in the next blog.Geolocation