Hot, Humid and Green at the South Pole

Posted June 8th, 2016 at 11:16 am (UTC-5)
1 comment

On a good week, the greenhouse can produce upwards of 10 pounds of fresh produce—enough for two to three fresh salads a week for the entire station. (Refael W. Klein)

On a good week, the greenhouse can produce upwards of 10 pounds of fresh produce—enough for two to three fresh salads a week for the entire station. (Refael W. Klein)

The temperature has increased—thank goodness.  Negative 100F (-73C) tends to lose its novelty after a few days—especially when you have to walk through it on your way to and from work.  There are only so many times someone can tell you, “wow, it’s still minus 100F” over burnt morning coffee, over-steeped afternoon tea, or a 10 pm night-cap of cheap cognac, before the exciting climatic phenomena sloughs off its diamond-encrusted aura, and your frost-nipped ear is no longer a badge of honor, just a painful reminder of warmer climates.

Negative 60, more or less, is what it has been all week.  Warm for winter at the South Pole.  It seems odd to apply the word “warm” to a temperature 92 degrees Fahrenheit below freezing, but a 40 degree, positive temperature swing is hard not to notice–refreshingly pleasant, like an Indian summer New Year after a White Christmas.

Of course, minus 60F (-51C) is by no means warm, even for us ice-hardened Antarctic explorers.  Like I said, it’s really just the massive temperature change in the last 48 hours that has lent me the illusion of sweat building up beneath my green, polypropylene shirt during my afternoon walk to the Atmospheric Research Observatory.  In another day, when minus 60 is the new normal and my body’s metabolism has dropped from warp-speed to mach-3, I’ll be as cold as ever.  When all is said in done, minus 60 is as unnatural as minus 100, and like a Yakuza crime boss or an ounce of fresh ground nutmeg, it will kill you or make you extremely uncomfortable if you don’t treat it with respect.

Humid, warm, and smelling of earth, the greenhouse is a great place to kick back, relax and enjoy an out-of-date issue of your favorite magazine. (Refael W. Klein)

Humid, warm, and smelling of earth, the greenhouse is a great place to kick back, relax and enjoy an out-of-date issue of your favorite magazine. (Refael W. Klein)

When my patience wears thin with the cold, the darkness and the dry air, (in other words, winter at the South Pole) and I’m tired of not being able to feel my nose or toes or fingers, I escape to the station’s most perfect sanctuary, the greenhouse, with a good book or some degenerate gonzo journalism.

The name “greenhouse” is a bit of a misnomer, a South Pole colloquialism, if you will.  In reality, it’s a completely enclosed hydroponics facility, not the light-filled glass building that probably comes to mind.  As the story goes, the greenhouse was never part of the original Amundsen-Scott station design.  The space it occupies was an accessory lab/storage room.  As chance would have it, one of the first National Science Foundation (NSF) research grants at the new, elevated South Pole Station was given to a university group interested in a proof of concept for a hydroponic food system they had designed for theoretical deployment to outer space.

To the joy of those living at the South Pole that winter, the hydroponics facility worked superbly.  “Greenhouse salads” were enjoyed on a weekly basis, and fresh herbs—basil, cilantro, dill—were given to the kitchen each week to be incorporated into sauces and soups.

Tim Ager, a greenhouse volunteer, spends a late evening mixing nutrients for the hydroponics system. (Refael W. Klein)

Tim Ager, a greenhouse volunteer, spends a late evening mixing nutrients for the hydroponics system. (Refael W. Klein)

Morale was the highest it had been in seasons, and when the university was done testing its system, the NSF worked with the research group to keep the greenhouse in place (I suppose it was cheaper to keep it here than fly it back to the United States!) and to train station volunteers in its operation.

Today, the greenhouse is humid and verdant.  Tall cucumber vines and tomato plants climb towards the ceiling, where full spectrum sodium-lights shine down with enough intensity to give one a sunburn.   A green couch has been placed in an anteroom that is used for seed propagation and equipment storage, and a coffee table has been improvised out of an old, metal shipping trunk—probably one of the original ones used to send down supplies when the greenhouse project began.

The smell of foliage and humidity are instantly soothing—like seeing land after months adrift on a raft in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.  It only takes a few moments of exposure to this artificial environment before you lose yourself.  The icecap–something foreign and forgotten—melts away, and it’s easier to imagine you’re sitting in the National Botanic Garden reading a book, rather than in the middle of a barren, frozen continent.  Or, perhaps it’s just the additional oxygen playing tricks on my mind.

Refael Klein
Refael Klein is a Lieutenant Junior Grade in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Commissioned Officer Corps (NOAA Corps). He's contributing to Science World during his year-long assignment working and living in the South Pole.

One response to “Hot, Humid and Green at the South Pole”

  1. Sally says:

    Great read! It’s nice to know that there is a more “normal” place at the Pole. Loved the picture of Tim. He’s my next door neighbor. I didn’t recognize him.