Arizona botanist hopes for Arctic hydroponics
Phil Sadler tries to grow food on the moon.
He started in Antarctica, made his way to Mars, and now has his sights set on Arctic Alaska, specifically Nuiqsut.
"I missed plants when I was down in Antarctica. I knew there was a need for it," he said. "Honestly, I'm very interested in space, too. I enjoy doing this sort of stuff."
Sadler has a degree in botany from Northern Arizona University. After he graduated, he got a job working for the contractor to the National Science Foundation in Antarctica. He spent 13 seasons as a heavy equipment operator there and in his off-time, he built greenhouses.
"Ever since mankind's been going to Antarctica, they always bring seeds with them. There's been people before me trying to grow crops. People like to have plants around so they try to grow them," he said.
What he did differently from his predecessors was navigate the bureaucratic twists and turns to make it happen.
"It wasn't the environment, it was the politics," he said. "That was the hardest part."
With a record low of 118 degrees Fahrenheit below zero at the South Pole station, he put that greenhouse inside the existing structure as a growth chamber.
At McMurdo station, he cobbled together a separate building and repurposed double-paned window material for a glasshouse.
"During the wintertime, they're isolated for six months in McMurdo with no flights in and no fresh produce, so it generated salads and stuff for the crew there. Out at the South Pole, they're isolated for eight-and-a-half months and so they run through their stored fresh produce really quickly and then they have nothing," he explained.
The desire for fresh fruits and veggies was high and his work paid off. The houses were successful. The foundation eventually constructed a new South Pole station and wanted another greenhouse to go with it. Sadler, who had moved back to Arizona by that time, worked on the proposal.
Since then, he's been working on contracts for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration for lunar and Martian greenhouses, which would help support long-term space travel and habitation efforts.
His introduction to the opposite pole was in Greenland and Canada, working on the Distant Early Warning, or DEW, Line.
"I used to go into the Hudson Bay store and see what they had available for the local residents and it was pathetic," he recalled. "That's what sort of gave me the idea that we should do something in the Arctic."
It's a familiar story across the North Slope. There's rarely good produce, especially in the winter. What fruits and vegetables are available have often traveled thousands of miles and are damaged, under- or over-ripe, frostbitten, smashed, or have melded into a solid block of ice by the time they arrive.
"The fresh produce would be the No. 1 thing," said Bud Washburn, who works at the hotel in Nuiqsut and hopes Sadler's greenhouse idea will become reality in his village.
"Working here at the hotel, we have a restaurant and we support all the ice road crews in the winter and getting the produce is a challenge. It's so expensive," he explained. "It costs more to ship it up here than it does to buy it. You pick it up at the airport in 50 below weather. For a big head of lettuce, by the time they get it back to the hotel and peel off everything that got frozen, it's the size of a baseball."
That lack of dependable fresh food is what the Arctic, the Antarctic, the moon, Mars, and space, in general, have in common.
"It's a food desert. This is a term that's making its way through the horticultural community," said Sadler. "A food desert is a geographical area where affordable and nutritious food is difficult to obtain and I think that fits the Arctic very well."
There are already efforts underway to develop dependable greenhouses and growing operations on the North Slope and in the Northwest Arctic.
Gardens in the Arctic, an independent business based in Anaktuvuk Pass and owned by Rainey Nasugraq Hopson, recently received funding to build a high tunnel, which is a step up from the small greenhouse and backyard raised bed garden she had been maintaining for the past couple of years.
Sadler's concept is different from that, however. He envisions a technology-heavy house, using the McMurdo station structure as a model, with a larger production capacity than could be afforded by a typical greenhouse.
"We're advocating a high-tech approach with no soil," said Sadler. "We want to be able to provide assistance remotely. Being in the Arctic, heated growing space is extremely expensive, so you have to get the highest production possible out of a given space. These are the issues you have to work with."
No soil in this case would mean hydroponics, or water-based growing. Soilless food production is already commonplace in many of the country's commercial greenhouse operations for plants like tomatoes.
"What I see is that our role at the University of Arizona Controlled Environment Agriculture Center is to demonstrate the technology, provide some degree of education, and then it will be up to the Arctic people whether it is successful or not," said Sadler. "The technology is there but the community buy-in is so important. If they aren't interested, then it's going to die. But, if they are interested and it works well, it could spread throughout the entire Arctic."
He described the remote expert component as a key element of a successful high-tech house. What that means is the structure could be monitored remotely for moisture levels, temperature, light, and more, by technicians based at the Arizona lab.
Before a permanent structure could be built, there would have to be a test greenhouse to gather data on the cost and labor to grow food in-house versus purchase it and fly it to the Arctic.
"What I envision is the test greenhouse is like a 16-foot by 10-foot growing area," he described.
It would be covered, potentially, in a relatively new material called Ethylene Tetrafluoroethylene, or ETFE, which is the same as the membrane covering the Olympic Aquatic Center built for the Beijing games.
"We use it for our Mars effort," said Sadler. "It's extremely durable. If you took regular greenhouse [material] up there, the environment would tear it apart. I don't like having glass overtop people because if the wind blows it in, you could get hurt."
The greenhouse would look like a typical glasshouse, more or less, in the summertime, using the long daylight hours to grow the plants. In the winter, it could be shrouded in a protective cover and utilize artificial lighting.
"One neat thing about Nuiqsut is we have natural gas and it's very reasonable and then with the new LED lighting, you can grow year-round without any sunlight," said Washburn, the Nuiqsut resident.
So far, Sadler's ideas have had some trouble gaining traction on the Slope, but he hopes with increased awareness about the potential for more locally-sourced produce, interest could also grow.
"From my Antarctic experience, [without produce] I degenerated into a meat and potatoes kind of guy and that's not the formula for living a long and healthy life," said Sadler. "I know there's a diabetes problem [in the Arctic] and the fresh produce is the most difficult part of a healthy diet to acquire. Plus, if you have a greenhouse where people are working in it, it generates a consciousness for healthy diets. That's the goal — to give the people the opportunity to improve their diets."
Besides, as Washburn pointed out, if it could work for the moon, why not Nuiqsut?
Shady Grove Oliver can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.