Russian polar explorers grew watermelons in the coldest place on the planet

An unusual experiment was successfully completed by Russian polar explorers in Antarctica. In the coldest place on our planet, at the Vostok station, they grew the southernmost watermelons in the history of mankind. In addition to scientific interest, the bold attempt also has a purely practical significance: the fruits turned out to be sweet, and the sight of the Antarctic melon gives real pleasure and lifts the spirits. Polar agronomists do not intend to stop there – the harvest of cucumbers and tomatoes is approaching, the next stage will be the cultivation of blackberries, blueberries and strawberries.

According to the leading geophysicist of the Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute at the Vostok station, Andrei Teplyakov, the southernmost watermelons in the harshest conditions of Antarctica turned out to be no worse in taste and aroma than those to which we are all accustomed.

— The size of the fruits is up to 13 cm in diameter, and their weight is up to 1 kg. Naturally, all the polar explorers were happy to remember the taste of summer. Even watching the seedlings, growth, appearance of fruits and their increase brought positive emotions. The Agrophysical Institute warned us even at the order stage that watermelon is the most capricious plant. But we chose it anyway – the more complex the task, the more interesting it is. In the near future we expect an equally impressive harvest of cucumbers, – Andrey Teplyakov said.

The daring experiment involved specialists from the 68th Russian Antarctic Expedition from the Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute, the Agrophysical Research Institute and the Institute of Medical and Biological Problems of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Eight ripe and sweet red and yellow fruits were grown in 103 days on six plants using soilless Panoponics technology.

Favorable air temperature and humidity were created using a phytotechnical complex specially developed by the Agrophysical Institute for the Vostok station. When growing watermelons, we used a thin-layer soil substitute, nutrient solutions and specially selected lighting, the spectrum of which is close to sunlight. Two early ripening varieties, selected for their high taste and ability to adapt to low atmospheric pressure and oxygen deficiency, were planted in early April, hand pollination was carried out at the end of May, and already in July the polar explorers were able to taste the first fruits.

— In addition to scientific interest and direct practical benefits in the form of fresh vegetables, berries and herbs, our joint project brings a number of important additional benefits. The greenhouse at the station has a beneficial effect on the emotional state of polar explorers, who spend many months in an isolated group, in conditions of the polar night, low temperatures and limited living space. The introduction of the practice of growing plants at all Russian polar stations has been discussed for a long time, but this requires an accurate calculation of the effectiveness and cost of the project. Current experiments make it possible to create a basis for calculating the required areas, volumes of planting material, number and qualifications of specialists. Work in this direction will continue, – emphasized AARI Director Alexander Makarov.

The joint experiment “Plants” on growing vegetable crops at the Vostok station started in February 2020. Previously, a system for growing 80 varieties of various leaf and leaf-stem vegetable crops was successfully developed. Last season, the station received 28.5 kg of low-growing tomatoes of two varieties and 9 kg of pepper. Among leafy vegetable crops, sorrel, arugula, kale, watercress, mustard and turnip greens, salad crops, amaranth, chard, purslane, parsley, dill, basil, spinach, etc. are grown.

Vostok station is the only year-round inland Russian station in Antarctica. It was founded on December 16, 1957 on the flat snowy surface of a glacial plateau at an altitude of 3488 m above sea level, 1460 km from the coast. The climatic conditions here are the harshest on Earth. In winter, the temperature annually drops below –70 °C, and in the summer months it rarely rises above –30 °C. It was at the Vostok station in July 1983 that the lowest air temperature on the planet was recorded (–89.2 °C).

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