Hydroponics at the South Pole

My absolute favorite room on station is the South Pole Growth Chamber. It’s a state of the art hydroponic growing system that started out as a university prototype for a growth chamber in space or on other planets, but now it basically supplements our intermittent New Zealand freshie orders and is the warmest/most humid place to take a nap on station. It is run entirely by volunteers, who are awesome and spend their time making sure the rest of the station gets a beautiful oasis to retreat to when things get rough… and the occasional tomato.

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You can see it’s not too big but we make the most of a small amount of space by utilizing sliding trays and a seedling/nursery/harvest rotation system. The yellowish lights at the back are high pressure sodium and the cooler spectrum at the front are LEDs; the LEDs are more energy efficient but some plants seem to prefer the sodium lights. We keep the lights on for 16 hours a day because, like us polies, plants need a little bit of time to rest too.

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Here are some little baby plants back in the nursery that will get transplanted into the front growing area as those plants are harvested. We grow mostly leafy greens like bok choi, mizuna, lettuces and kale as well as herbs like dill, parsley, cilantro and basil. We’ve got cucumbers and tomatoes started but they won’t start producing till closer to winter, which is fine cause they’re going to need it more than we do. During the winter (9 months of -100 F temps, no sunlight and no fresh fruits/vegetables) a slice of melon or a cherry tomato is better than sex; also the growth chamber is the only source of “sunlight” so I would hang out in daisy dukes, a tank top and flip flops and soak it up.

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This is one of our best producers; bok choi. Or tat soy. Or bak toy. Or tat soi. Or delicious with peanut butter. It grows like gangbusters. Other than 16 hours of sunlight and all of the nutrients their little plant hearts could desire (N, P, K) we pump the room full of freshly imported CO2. During peak production we can harvest about 40 pounds of greens, tomatoes, cukes, herbs and miscellaneous plant products and it makes such a differene in the galley. After slapping together what we affectionatley refer to as “Three Thing Salads” from cans and bags a bowl of fresh bitter greens with a simple vinaigrette is a god send.

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I should also mention the South Pole’s penchant for gnomes. We love the little guys. And this is just one of the half a dozen or so on station. We like to keep things light down here… for my entire year there was a motion activated flatulating gnome that released a series of electronic farts every time someone dropped a dish off at the pit. So aside from providing food, humidity and comfort, the growth chamber provides a little bit of comic relief as well. Stay tuned for more science/facts/tidbits from the South Pole!

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