Robyne explains the virtues of the hydroponics program, and on station it was week of maintaining water security, and completing survival training!

Hydroponics - Mawson 2023

It seems like only yesterday that I was talking about all things hydroponics in Antarctica. Yesterday was, in fact, 2021 at Casey station. Today I’m immersed in hydro at Mawson station and managing a similar system to make sure we have lots of green fresh produce here too.

My first winter Antarctic hydro experience was somewhat stressful, which is ironic because appreciating beautiful greenery with lovely flowers and fresh smells is actually one of the benefits of having hydroponics. With 27 people on station, I was always worried we would not produce enough. Mawson is a smaller crew, 19, but also a smaller growing room. This year, however, has started well, with greenery everywhere and no signs of scarcity.

Since arriving in February, the Hydro Renovation Team, led by Scott, has already built and/or replaced half of the growing space with new trays to support the Nutrient Film Technique (NFT) system (for the hydro nerds out there).

All of this work is voluntary, and we have a dedicated team of nine this year to keep things running. An hour a day or thereabouts and a few hours each weekend means that lettuce, tomatoes, cucumber, chillies, kale, silverbeet, pak choi, and a multitude of herbs thrive.

Last time I talked about the history of hydroponics in Antarctica and about the Eden ISS (International Space Station) Project (Icy News, 17 Sep 2021). To update you, Eden ISS, a European space analogy greenhouse project run by the German Aerospace Centre, has been extended because of the positive results. NASA, a collaborator, has in 2021/2022 run joint experiments with greenhouse technologies and plant varieties at the German Antarctic Neumayer Station III with a view to growing plants on the Moon and on Mars. Significantly, scientists have also recorded the behavioural and psychological effects the greenhouse and its yield has on the isolated winter crew.

In line with Eden ISS results showing that there is a strong impact of plant interaction on well-being, I can confirm that hydroponics can provide not only a wonderful fresh supplement to daily meals, but pleasure, and a supportive, productive team activity for all on station.

Robyne (BoM Senior Observer)

The importance of water on an Antarctic station and Survival Training for the 76th Mawson team complete

On a continent almost entirely covered by ice, it would be easy to assume finding water would be easy! Unfortunately, getting enough water to sustain Mawson's nineteen wintering expeditioners is challenging. The consequences of being unable to gain enough water during the winter can lead to dire consequences, including restrictions on bathing, washing, and laundry (and most definitely no long baths!). Different stations take different approaches to water supply, from reverse osmosis plants, which turn seawater into drinking water, through to bulk storage. Here at Mawson, being so close to the ice plateau, we have the ability to slowly melt the ice as it passes by the station using a melt-bell. This can supply the station with a few thousand litres of pure water daily, which in most cases, with careful use, is enough to maintain our station population.

This week, unfortunately, saw one of our boiler systems crack, losing a significant quantity of water. Our outstanding plumbing and electrical team noticed the failure quickly and were able to both isolate the faulty boiler and replace it in only 24 hours. While this time we were lucky and did not lose too much water, it highlights the importance of constantly checking that there are no leaks anywhere on the station so that we can get through the winter with enough water.

On a much more positive note, our Field Training Officer Dave - aided by a spell of fabulous weather - has successfully instructed the whole team in the skills required for survival in Antarctica while travelling away from station. With just myself and Andrew, one of our Communications Technical Officers, left to train, we headed up onto the plateau. Driving a vehicle for the first time in over two months, especially a left-hand drive one, was quite strange. Thankfully there were not too many screams of terror from the passengers due to my driving (I think . . . Hägglunds are quite a loud vehicle inside!). We made it safely to Fang Hut for the first night. It was here we learnt all the etiquette for hut use, as well as just how tasty vacuum-packed frozen Lasagna can be after being boiled. Don't believe anything our chef Nick says - his cooking is wonderful. We also had a chance to explore the surrounding ridgeline and experience the views from the top out to the West.

On the second day, Andrew drove across to Rumdoodle Hut, ably keeping to the carefully plotted GPS route for safety. Dreading the coming night of sleeping out in our bivvy bags, we at least got to get out for a short hike around Rumdoodle Lake and also prepare a suitably sheltered snow hole to be able to huddle in out of any wind that may come up during the night ahead. Finally, before heading to sleep, we got to find out just how excellent Nick's cooking really is by comparing it to commercial dehydrated meals. Whilst giving us energy, it can not be said that they were particularly appetising, and we both continued to experience them in a negative way over the following few hours.

Settling down in our bivvy bags and sleeping bags within, I realised my mistake in putting myself in the last group to head out field. With the rapidly oncoming winter, the temperature has already started dropping into the negative 20s. There is some conjecture on the exact temperature during the night due to a mismatch between temperature gauges; however, it still felt very cold! Nonetheless, huddled inside, the night passed slowly with careful avoidance of any significant movements lest they dislodge the frozen condensation above my head. We awoke to a calm morning and enjoyed a warm cup of instant coffee before heading back off the plateau to station. With survival training complete, the team are now prepared to conduct operational, scientific, and recreational trips over the months ahead.

Cat (Mawson SL)