From Antarctica to Mars: Growing Food in Extreme Conditions

Even those of us with the greenest thumbs are baffled by the idea of growing food in Antarctica. From my tiny desk plant to my neighbor’s cabbage patch, plants generally have the same requirements: soil, sun and water. At the southern end of the planet, however, those are all scarce commodities. Nonetheless, on April 5, 2018, the team managing the EDEN-ISS greenhouse at Neumayer III announced that they had harvested 8 pounds of salad greens, 18 cucumbers and 70 radishes. This project has implications beyond just Antarctica, from moderate climates on Earth to future Mars missions. Continue reading

Is it Cold Enough for You?

ThermometerDuring the winter months “Is it cold enough for you?” is a common greeting here in Wisconsin. With the official start to winter here in the Northern hemisphere less than 2 weeks away, temperatures are dropping and many of us are experiencing temperatures at or below the freezing point. As I write this blog entry, the temperature outside is a balmy –14°C (7°F), with a wind chill of –20°C (–4°F). Days like today want to make me hibernate or temporarily move to warmer climes, especially when I think about the colder temperatures that will surely follow in January and February. I was recently reminded that as cold as it is now, it could be worse. Much worse. There was a recent report of a new record low temperature in the heart of Antarctica, and I am cold just thinking about it. The temperature? –92.3°C (–136°F, 178°K).

It doesn’t matter what temperature scale you use, that’s cold: colder than your –70°C freezer and colder than dry ice (–109.3°F, –78.5°C).

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The Reappearance of Scurvy

I’ve written previously on my fascination with Antarctica; so it’s with tremendous pleasure that I link to this essay by Maciej Ceglowski on scurvy and Robert F. Scott’s doomed 1911 expedition to the South Pole. Even though it’s telling a single story – how and why the cure for scurvy was found, lost, and discovered again – it synthesizes science, history, military strategy, public health, and brilliant writing. It also contains this gem:

“Eat a bear liver every few weeks and scurvy will be the least of your problems.”

I stumbled across this essay last night and let my dinner grow cold while I read it to the end. Ceglowski is a talented writer (see also his excellent rant on the space shuttle), and reading this dissection of knowledge and hubris is a joy.

Analogues

People who know me well have, at some point, heard me hold forth on the subject of Antarctica. It’s a passion of mine, though I’ve never been there. The forgotten continent is like the Sirens, pulling those who dare to trespass upon the ice back to one of the bleakest places on Earth.

I have consumed many accounts of life there, and have configured my internet services to deliver me news reports that deliver little crumbs of information. Anything that mentions Antarctica crosses my screen.

My fascination derives from boyhood dreams of space. Young visions of piloting starships and traversing Martian landscapes – visions of adventure, glory, and alien encounters – shattered in daylight on a January day in 1986 as I sat cross-legged on an elementary school gymnasium floor. It would be years before I saw 2001: A Space Odyssey, but watching the Challenger disintegrate into a fiery end, I immediately understood one of its central lessons: space is not glamorous, glorious, or any more alien than many of the places on our planet. Space is cold, unemotional, and unforgiving. It is intolerant of error, and it is lonely. And despite these things, it is where any future humans can hope to have must lie.

I will never go into orbit, but Antarctica, that’s the next best thing. Cold. Unforgiving. Intolerant of error. Nearly devoid of life except that which we import and resupply, it is where we troubleshoot the logistical problems of sustaining remote and isolated human colonies. Having spread across six other continents, it is our last terrestrial frontier.

No, I will never float among celestial bodies and listen to the low murmur of the universe rippling deep in the dark silence of space. But there is another place where we pursue science, a place closer to home, where I can be cold and alone and maybe catch a stray shard of a broken childhood dream.