Once Upon Antarctica

Once upon a time there was an icy continent at the ends of the earth. It was a place for heroes, a geographical place to be conquered, a continent for peace and science, a mineral-rich resource, and a poster child for climate change, each depending on a very human point of view, and each anchored in story.

Most people will never actually go to , so their experience of the place is mediated by texts. Those texts could be diaries, photographs, films, plays, adverts, or scientific papers – what is important is that all contribute to an imagined version of Antarctica which, for the majority who never head south, will remain more ‘real’ than the ice itself. Just as ancient geological processes shaped the Transantarctic ranges, these narratives shape our personal version of the place. Happy Feet aside, what are some of the dominant ways in which we have imagined Antarctica?

Untouched Wilderness. This is the version of Antarctica that is typically accompanied by a soundtrack of howling wind and panning shots showing snow, ice, more snow, and maybe a figure in the corner, dwarfed by the expanse of white. Cue the archetypal man-never-set-foot-here-before heroic pose, featuring the subject leaning into the blizzard. Typically presented in grainy black and white, it is a snapshot, capturing the moment the untouched becomes claimed. And this leads us on nicely to…

Landsat screenshotThe Last Frontier. Once upon a time California was the wild west, a place where cowboys roamed, gold was abundant, and adventure guaranteed. These days you’re more likely to see film stars than bareback riders in LA, but down South the romance is alive and well. Antarctica may be the most surveilled place on earth, but satellite imagery doesn’t hold the same sort of appeal as flesh and blood, traipsing just that little bit further in order to stand where no man has ever stood before. The untapped oil resources (which will remain untapped under the current provisions of the Antarctic Treaty System, or ATS) just add to the mystique. The ATS brings its own version of Antarctica to the table, namely of the continent as a …

Place for Peace and Science. The Antarctic Treaty is a unique piece of international law, in that it sets Antarctica aside as a laboratory for the world. Several claimant nations carry their own national narratives of Antarctica as belonging to them, while most other nations refuse to recognize those claims. The ATS accommodates both points of view: claims do not have to be rescinded, nor recognized. Instead, they are put to one side, and science is used as the currency of the south. Science legitimates a human presence in Antarctica. It also serves as the gateway to access and power – in order to gain consultative party status at Antarctic Treaty meetings, a nation must demonstrate that it are conducting substantial research activity in the Antarctic. In this context, ‘science’ is not just about the work that goes on in laboratories and in the field, but takes on a distinct geopolitical aspect as well. Then there is the visual side of things, namely…

Beauty, or the Sublime. These two concepts have a rich history, and have been distinct since the eighteenth century. Beauty is pleasing and pleasurable, while the sublime is overwhelming and, being too much for the senses to handle, extends into the realms of terror. Traditionally, the Great Ice Barrier and the tempestuous weather of Antarctica have been associated with the latter, but these days the line seems to be getting blurred. When travelling to Antarctica involves a 5 star cruise liner rather than a wooden sailing vessel, fear tends to take a back seat and aesthetics frame the emotional response to the landscape. Just in case you were thinking the dangers had all been conquered, shift your gaze to the next version of Antarctica, where the melting ice is used to…

Personify Climate Change. We all know the images: The Larsen B ice shelf breaking up as viewed from space and chunks of the Pine Island Glacier tumbling into the sea below.

Because we believe that melting looks a certain way, we seek out images to match. Forget the invisible effects of ocean erosion as the sea gnaws out the ice from below. Leave the complicated dynamics of the ice cap to one side, lest anyone ask technical questions: calving glaciers tick the box. Antarctica may be located at the end of the earth, but we are slowly realising that our whole world is driven by an interconnected system.

What do all of these versions of a far off place have to do with science? Essentially, they are the frame. We conduct science in Antarctica because we think it is important, but we think it is important because of the narratives we construct about the place. The cultural frame through which we view Antarctica is often taken for granted, but it is a frame which actually helps shape our values and determine what science we deem to be important.

Hanne Nielsen

Hanne Nielsen (@WideWhiteSage ) holds a Masters in Antarctic Studies from the University of Canterbury, and is currently working towards a PhD in Representations of Antarctica at the University of Tasmania. She has visited Antarctica 5 times, both with the PCAS course, and working as a guide on Antarctic tour ships, where she lectures on human interactions with the southern continent. As an active member of the Association of Early Career Scientists and the New Zealand Antarctic Society, Hanne enjoys sharing her passion for the Southern Continent with both her academic peers and the wider community. represantarctic.wordspress.com

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  1. October 11, 2014

    […] Extract from a Guest Post on the Real Scientists Blog […]

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