Last weekend, as the temperatures soared, I found a certain amount of solace in learning more about how plants are being grown in Antarctica – the coldest place on Earth. 

I’ve known for years that there were greenhouses in Antartica, supplying isolated crews with a few fresh vegetables, and a splash of colour and humidity in an otherwise white world. The one I was most familiar with – at the American McMurdo Station – opened in 1989 and closed in 2011.

Antarctica: the greenhouse
The McMurdo greenhouse in 2007

America also has the South Pole Food Growth Chamber (SPFGC), which was assembled and extensively tested at the University of Arizona before being shipped to the South Pole. It was installed in Antarctica in 2004 and is still in use today. It has been used to grow a wide variety of crops including lettuces, cucumbers, tomatoes, herbs, melons and peppers.

South Pole Green House
The South Pole Food Growth Chamber in 2011

I was curious as to how many greenhouses were in active use in Antarctica, and I found out that in 2015 there were nine. As well as the SPFGC, there were greenhouses at Casey, Davis, Mawson (Australia), Great Wall (China), Syowa (Japan), King Sejong, Jang Bogo (South Korea), and Scott Base (New Zealand).

The UK isn’t on that list. The British Antarctic Survey operates three research stations in Antarctica. Rothera Research Station is the largest, and there’s also the Halley VI Research Station and Signy Research station (which is only operated during the summer). The original plans for the Halley VI base included a hydroponic greenhouse, but it was never built. In fact, it appears that the British haven’t been growing any plants in Antarctica since the 1970s.

The first plants deliberately grown in Antarctica sprung up during the Discovery Expedition, officially known as the British National Antarctic Expedition, from 1901–04. Botanist Dr Reginald Koettlitz grew seedling crops of mustard and cress while the RSS Discovery was trapped by ice in McMurdo Sound. When he harvested some of the plants and served them to the crew in November 1902, it was the first fresh food they had eaten in 13 months. Koettlitz also grew lettuce, radishes, onions and turnips, in boxes of Antarctic soil under the wardroom skylight. There’s some evidence to suggest the crew also tried hydroponic gardening, sowing seeds on flannel and watering them with a nutrient solution.

Dr Koettlitz garden. Mustard + cress., 31st October 1902.
From The Royal Society, NAE/2/230

The UK grew lettuce, radishes, carrots, cabbage, spring onions, cress and pansies hydroponically at Stonington Island Station – Base E, which closed in 1975. They used locally-collected volcanic ash and sand as the growing medium, and imported nutrient salts to feed the plants.

There was a greenhouse at Wordie House – Base F that grew salad vegetables, but that closed in 1954.

In 1968 a greenhouse was constructed at Argentine Islands Station – Base F. Plants there grew in soil, and hydroponically, and the greenhouse was productive enough to provide every member of the crew a fresh salad every couple of weeks. It grew lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, radishes, mustard and cress. This greenhouse remained in active use until 1976, but there are mentions of it through to 1979.

Base G, at Admiralty Bay Station, appears to have had a greenhouse in operation between 1950-1954, which grew flowers as well as vegetables during the summer months. During the winter it was used as a dog kennel.

Signy Island Station – Base H has been in use since 1947. Its first greenhouse, built in 1950, was destroyed by strong winds in 1952. A new one was built in 1955 or 1956, and in 1958, it was used to grow mustard, cress, radish, onions and lettuce. In 1963 it was successfully growing daffodils! There are photos of the greenhouse until 1967.

Initial gardening attempts at Halley I – Base Z were informal. In 1962 a radio operator built a hydroponic system in the radio room and grew tomatoes, lettuce, radishes, mustard, cress, and peas. At the time, the hut was buried under about 9 metres of snow. Later that year, the crew built a small outdoor greenhouse, but on sunny days the indoor temperature could top 35°C, even though the outdoor temperature remained below freezing. 

The ‘Madrid Protocol’ (the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty) that came into force on 4th January 1998 prohibits bringing non-native soils to Antarctica and prevents countries from growing non-food crops there. Both of these prohibitions are intended to prevent the introduction of non-native species into the Antarctic ecosystem, and essentially mean that food is grown hydroponically.

Since 2015, at least one new greenhouse has been added to the list. EDEN ISS is inside a shipping container and was transported to the German Neumayer Station III Antarctic station after a successful test in Bremen. It’s built on extendable stilts because snow will accumulate underneath. 

The EDEN ISS project aims to develop ‘controlled environment agriculture technologies’ that can be used in inhospitable environments on Earth, but also on the International Space Station (ISS), and future spacecraft and Moon/Mars bases.

EDEN ISS interior
Image credit: Hanno Muller, AWI

In its initial run, the greenhouse produced 268 kg of food from a 12.5 square metre space, over 9.5 months, including 67 kg of cucumbers, 117 kg of lettuce and 50 kg of tomatoes. It used less than half the power previously assumed for greenhouses in space, and is being reimagined as a deployable greenhouse suitable for launch on a Falcon 9 rocket

Greenhouse concept for the Moon and Mars
Image credit: LIQUIFER Systems Group

“The taste and smell of fresh vegetables have left a lasting impression on the overwintering crew, and have clearly had a positive effect on the team’s mood over the long period of isolation.” 

DLR researcher PaulZabel, the plucky EDEN ISS Antarctic gardener

Originally slated to end in April 2019, the project has been extended to 2021 because of the many benefits it generated. The DLR is opening up the EDEN ISS greenhouse to other research groups, and NASA is one of the first new collaborative partners. NASA sent lettuce seeds of a variety that is being grown on the ISS, and it’s now thriving in Antarctica, too.

EDEN ISS and the Aurora australis
Image credit: Hanno Muller, AWI

Reference

Bamsey, Matthew T., et al. “Review of Antarctic greenhouses and plant production facilities: A historical account of food plants on the ice.” 45th International Conference on Environmental Systems, 2015.