Frozen Foodies

Reporter / by Chaz Firestone /

The South Pole may be the most desolate region on Earth. But even at the bottom of the world, people have to eat. Here’s how they do it in Antarctica.

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On a barren stretch of ice deep in the interior of Antarctica, Lane Patterson grows watermelons. Cantaloupe, too, for dessert after munching on some of the healthier crops he produces, like broccoli, spinach, and kale. His growth chamber is the southernmost in the world, evidenced by the view outside its window: A small, red-and-white post topped with a mirror-like orb—the marker for the South Pole.

Inside, buzzing sodium-vapor lamps flood the chamber with a thick yellow light. Rows of saplings line the walls and an island in the center. Leafy greens are on the outer files, and climbing crops are in the middle. The unlikely garden is immature for now, but in a few months time, Patterson says, it will be a lush, edible jungle. 

Patterson’s desert “greenhouse,” as it is called, is no mirage, but isn’t a greenhouse either. Traditional glass-paneled walls would be useless during the endless night of the Austral winter, and the nearest soil is kilometers below the station, beneath the largest mass of ice on Earth—the 2-kilometer-thick Antarctic ice sheet.

The plants are grown hydroponically, bathed in a nutrient-rich solution that feeds them a large swath of the periodic table: nitrogen, calcium, potassium, copper, zinc, iron, molybdenum and selenium. The plants stretch out their roots into an inert mineral-wool substrate, which soaks up the solution without interacting with the hydroponic chemicals.

Though the terrain at the Pole is pancake-flat as far as the eye can see, the kilometers-thick ice places the hydroponic growth chamber at high altitude, which equates to some 60 to 70 percent of the atmospheric pressure at sea level. Coupled with the oppressively dry conditions of a polar desert, horticulture is a rather difficult hobby, so Patterson has rigged up a humidifier in the corner, imparting a thickness to the chamber’s air.

Patterson says his fellow South Pole residents often spend their leisure time in the humid, brightly lit growth chamber to rejuvenate, taking in the floral aromas and feeling as if they’ve spent an hour in the sun.

“The plants think they’re in their normal environment,” Patterson says. “So sometimes we can fool the humans, too.”

The hydroponic growth chamber’s home is a hallway on the second floor of Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, named after the expedition leaders who first arrived here nearly a century ago. (Roald Amundsen, a Norwegian explorer, beat Robert Falcon Scott, a Brit, by five weeks.) Much has changed since then. Where Amundsen and Scott reached the Pole on dogsleds or man-hauled sledges, today’s Antarctic explorers fly to the continent in 300-ton C-17 military jets, then jaunt to the Pole on a more petite LC-130 jet specially outfitted with skis for landing on snow runways. A similarly roundabout journey awaits everything that comes here: Digital optical modules that track high-energy neutrinos in the crystal-clear Antarctic ice, building materials for the galaxy-hunting South Pole Telescope, and the buzzing sodium-vapor lamps.

Because of the exorbitant sunk costs associated with the lengthy trip, the NSF, which funds the United States Antarctic Program (USAP), tends to send the good stuff; just a few dozen paces from the station lies a large wooden crate, stuffed to the brim with lobster tails. The boxes read “Maintain at -18˚C or colder.” No problem.

But for the icy desert’s permanent residents, the real treat is crisp, newly picked fruits and vegetables—“freshies,” in the Antarctic argot. Tastes can change on the ice—an altitude sickness medication popular at the Pole has the side effect of parageusia, lending carbonated beverages a foul bite—but freshies have enduring appeal. With morale at a premium in the desolate wastes, freshies are a welcome reprieve from frozen meals, even when those meals are turkey dinners, medium-rare steaks, and lightly battered whitefish.

Where Amundsen and Scott were able to hunt seals and penguins for sustenance, the Antarctic Treaty System prohibits disturbing—let alone eating—the continent’s inhabitants, leaving freshies the most sought-after Antarctic delicacy. 

On most of the continent, freshies only arrive with groups of visitors like mine, a small band of science journalists touring the continent with the NSF. But at the South Pole, station residents have the luxury of growing their own.

“This place cranks out a lot of veggies,” Patterson says. In harvest season, the growth chamber yields over six kilograms of biomass per day, nearly half of which is edible. And that’s no small amount of freshies.

In this way, the greenhouse serves as an important reminder of the culinary comforts of home during a winter on Earth’s coldest, driest and darkest continent: Arugula salads with roasted home-grown bell peppers, sautéed swiss chard with fresh tomato and parmesan cheese and, of course, watermelon for dessert.

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