On the one hand, there’s the watermelon. The iconic summer fruit it loves heat and humidity and is cultivated in Africa and Mediterranean countries. On the other, there’s Antarctica. A continent covered in ice, plunged half the year into the polar night and known for its bitter cold. Between the two, a group of Russian scientists have set themselves a seemingly insane challenge: to grow watermelons in Antarctica. Now, they are enjoying a feast of sweet watermelons to celebrate their success.
There are eight of them. They weigh around one kilo each and have a circumference of 13 centimetres. And thanks to them, the scientists of the 68th Russian Antarctic Expedition enjoyed a little taste of summer in the middle of the southern winter. Apparently, the taste of the world’s southernmost watermelons was quite comparable to that of their Mediterranean cousins.
Grown inside a phytotechnical complex, the plants benefited from a thin-layer soil substitute, nutrient solutions and specially selected lighting close to sunlight. Two varieties were selected for their ability to adapt to both lower pressure and less oxygen, as Vostok station is located at an altitude of 3,488 meters. Planted in early April and hand-pollinated in May, the first fruits were already available in July, 103 days after the start of the experiment.
Yet it was a long shot, as this watermelon is difficult to grow in such conditions. ” The Institute of Agrophysics had already warned us at the project order stage that watermelon is the most temperamental of all plants. But we chose it anyway – the more difficult the task, the more interesting it is”, comments Andrey Teplyakov, geophysicist at AARI and head of the project, adding that his next goal is to grow cucumbers, blueberries and strawberries.
In addition to the taste, the experiment itself had a positive impact on the overwinterers, who enjoyed watching the plants develop: “The station’s greenhouse has a positive effect on the emotional state of polar explorers, who spend many months isolated as a team, in polar night conditions, low temperatures and limited living space”, explains Mr. Teplyakov in a press release published on the AARI website.
Started in February 2020, the experiment called “Plants” has already made it possible to cultivate 80 varieties of vegetables and fruits. Last season, the station was able to produce 28 kg of tomatoes and 9 kg of peppers.
It’s a great morale booster for the base’s staff, who can now add fresh products to their diet, a benefit that has to be weighed up against the cost involved: ” Introducing crop cultivation to all Russian polar stations has been discussed for a long time, but it requires a precise calculation of the efficiency and cost of implementing the project. Current experiments are making it possible to create a database for calculating the surface areas required, the volume of planting material, and the number and qualifications of specialists. Further work along these lines is planned. “
The benefits of growing fruit and vegetables under extreme environmental conditions are also of interest to scientists preparing for manned space missions. Growing tomatoes and raspberries on Mars? Yes, but this requires a more detailed study of feasibility and costs. Hence the interest of conducting such experiments in Antarctic stations. And it’s not a first for fruit and vegetables to emerge from Antarctic greenhouses. Korea has already grown watermelons in its station on the peninsula, and McMurdo produces its own lettuces in soil taken from the continent itself. And Germany is currently conducting studies on growing plants under artificial conditions for space projects.
A famous research station, Vostok was built in 1957 by the USSR on the Antarctic plateau, at the South Pole of Inaccessibility, the furthest point of the continent from any coast. Climatic conditions at Vostok are among the harshest on the planet, with freezing temperatures of -70°C in winter and -30°C in summer. For years, Vostok held the record for the lowest air temperature ever recorded at -89.2°C in July 1983.
With time, snow began to pile up around the station and the infrastructure fell into disrepair. As a result, Russian authorities decided to build new facilities. Work started in 2020 and is scheduled for completion by 2025.
Mirjana Binggeli, PolarJournal
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