Hey, y’all, I wrote this for a lecture-presentation at a stand-up showcase the other day and wanted to post it somewhere—BRB with the islands. Although this is TECHNICALLY about islands. In my opinion.
Welcome to my new favorite map! ANTARCTICAAAAA.
So I collect unusual old maps, and I found this 1963 map of Antarctica in an antiques store in Gilroy, California, on Labor Day weekend, and it hit a few of my buttons at once, being:
1. an old map
2. a National Geographic map with all the little editorial notes all over it
3. a map of a desolate, godforsaken place that can kill you if you just, like, are in it
As is well-documented here, I’m really into extreme geography, especially super-northern and -southern places. Additionally, this map has smaller inset maps of the Queen Maud Range, McMurdo Sound and a subglacial Antarctica! Like a state map, where it has the insets of the urban city detail—those are Antarctica’s urban areas, I guess. So I was over the moon when I found this thing. Fifty cents!
(Oh! By the way, I’m on the hunt for a moon map, but like a stylized, kind of pretty one, so if anyone ever sees one, let me know? It’s even better if it’s incorrect/out of date. I know, you can buy them online, but the new ones are all kind of boring-looking.)
(EDIT: Never mind, I just found one from 1969 for $2.50 on eBay and bought it, I’ll write about it when it arrives.)
So, first thing that I want to say is that Antarctica is called a continent, but I personally disagree with that, because just like Greenland, the actual rock under the ice is depressed beneath sea level, so it’s technically an archipelago. Just one covered in ice. It’s like if you take some ravioli and melt a big piece of cheese on top, they become bound together by the cheese and all, but. They’re still separate little entities under the cheese-ice, not a big continuous ravioli-continent. In modern cartography practices, we’re pretty distinct about landmasses being separate from water on maps, so I say it’s standard practice to count only above-water land and not any of the frozen water that unites it. That is cheating.
Here’s what Antarctica would look like with no ice (but not if the ice melted, because that would raise the sea level by about 250 feet—this is just if it were removed and thrown in the garbage). To be fair, that’s is a big-ass contiguous chunk to the east that is clearly not an archipelago, but it comprises, what, maybe half of the acknowledged ice-and-land-combined continent of Antarctica. Half, tops. Although maybe you can call that big piece a continent. A mini-conty.
Then you’ve got some people calling Antarctica an island, and I disagree with that too, because with the ice on top, the whole dish is the size of Europe (actually a little bigger). So if it’s an island, then everything is an island—Africa, South America, anything with water on all sides, aka everything. I suspect that people call it a continent because there had been stories of a southern continent since Ptolemy’s time, like 1 AD, so people were like “It’s a continent! Like in that book I read one time. This is obviously that. Case closed. Next song.” it’s too big, though.
So I say it’s an archipelago. It’s basically a huge group of mountain-islands, like Hawaii. Just bigger ones. And with ice on top.
Speaking of Hawaii, there are totally volcanos in Antarctica! Which was so surprising and strange to think about when I first read it. It’s very mountainous on the east half, so yeah, some of those mountains are volcanic, under the ice sheet. Mt. Erebus is an active volcano, as is Mt. Sidley and many others. I was considering why I thought that was so bizarre and I was like “Why, self? Did you… think the ice would cool the volcanoes down?”
And then I was like ….well, yeah. Sheepishly. Yeah, self, that’s what I thought, I guess. I thought it would be impossible to have volcanoes in Antarctica because the ice would cool the volcanos down. Volcanos are a hot thing! Antarctica is a cold thing! Sorry.
So that was dumb of me. They are there. The ice doesn’t cool them down.
Oh, speaking of the east side and the west side, that’s sort of subjective, right, because Antarctica is on the bottom of the Earth? So anything can be east or west, right? All directions are all directions down there. Well, someone at some point decided that it’s oriented with the peninsula on the left side, kind of like how we’ve all agreed decided that the world is laid out with North America and Europe at the top and that’s just how all the maps are printed now, with the white people at the top, weird, hunh?
So similarly, some unknown-to-me people seemingly arbitrarily decided that this was the most pleasing way to depict Antarctica, with the tail on the left, and everybody does it now, and that’s sort of translated to the left half being west and the right half being east, and now those are the real names of those regions. West Antarctica and East Antarctica. Even though it’s meaningless when you’re at the bottom of the globe.
Or is it the TOP of the globe? HHHMMMmmm?!
(Yes, I did notice that the U.S. size-comparison graphic above has a different orientation of Antarctica. Maybe it was made before the mystery folks regulated it.)
Even the emblem of the Antarcatica Treaty does it. Or should I say “especially.”
Another thing I love about Antarctica is the place names. Anyone who has ever heard me aspie out about about geography knows I’m a sucker for silly place names, and they seem to always run rampant on the silliness when you’re dealing with desolate or unpopulated places—anything kinda goes, because no one is gonna be complaining about how they don’t like the sound of spending spring break at Mount Terror.
(There IS a Mount Terror in Antarctica, named after one of James Clark Ross’s ships, the HMS Terror—James Clark Ross of the Ross Ice Shelf fame. But there’s also a Mount Terror in Washington too, in Whatcom County way up by the Canadian border, so I can’t talk too much trash on it.)
Also on my faves list is Four Ladies Bank: In 1937, a Norwegian whaling magnate, Lars Christiansen, was sailing toward it and named it after the ladies on the ship—his wife and daughter and two guests. That makes four! This cracks me up because I like the idea that he just looked around and started naming stuff after whatever he saw before him. Here’s Commode Fjord, and look, there’s Open Scurvy Wound Falls.
There a lot of “ice tongues,” which is not a place name per se, but which I enjoy, like the Thwaites Ice Tongue. Sounds like a disease. The word Thwaites also sounds like something you would say if you spoke with an ice tongue.
Also like “Butter Point.” It was named by UK Royal Navy Officer Robert Falcon Scott’s party as a depot point where their supplies were cached, most exhilaratingly (it seems) butter. I love how the experience they had defines the name of the place. Hey, I’m hungry, let’s go to Butter Point and get some butter. I feel like that’s where I was the last time I ate some butter.
Scott Base. Photo may or may not include Butter Point.
Antarctica has quite a lot of Historic Monuments, or more than you would imagine, and I love to think about that because you know, you think of yourself traversing a frozen, endless ice plateau with howling winds and hiking toward blank nothingness for weeks, but it’s nice to think that there’s actually stuff down there! Towers and flags and things. Landmarks, so you know where you are. I LOVE the idea of toiling through an ice field and then seeing a flag in the distance and getting excited and slowly approaching it. Whose will it be? Who was here? Trying to guess!
What you imagine. Or what I used to, until now.
Yeah, so there are things! Naturally, you’ve got the flag at the South Pole, but it’s not a UN flag or a blank white flag or an Antarctica flag—it is an Argentine flag! Why? Because Argentina got a wild hair in the ’60s; they had a base down there and wanted to cement some land claims that they had made in the ’50s—they wanted the tail, because it’s right by THEIR tail. And their base was at the base of the tail. Then they were like, wait, why isn’t there a flag on the South Pole? Obviously, there should be. Obviously, we should be the one to put it there, to show how INVOLVED we are in Antarctica’s life. We are filing for more custody.
They’re right across the street from Antarctica, of course, so quietly, surreptitiously, while the world’s superpowers, U.S. and the U.S.S.R., were bickering, a group of Argentine soldiers mounted an undercover mission to plant their flag on the spot. Some secret military dudes went on a two-month mission just to put a [sort of] symbolic flag on the South Pole.
The best part is that they got busted too—shortly after arriving at the South Pole, they ran into an American radar operator from the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, who was like “Wait, what,” and questioned them. The Argentines were eventually able to convince them that they weren’t Soviets, whereupon the Americans took them in at the station and fed them. The first decent meal, it was reported, that they’d had in weeks.
Way to color-coordinate your outfit with your snowcat-mobile, dudes
Speaking of Soviets: There is also a bust of Vladimir Lenin that faces Moscow, placed at not the South Pole but the nearby Pole of Inaccessibility (heh), by Soviets in 1958, along with a historical marker plaque and a little building they built. And inside the building, there is a golden guest book for those who make it to the site, to sign in, and that would be the cutest thing if it were the sign-in guestbook of a bust of pretty much anyone other than mass murderer Vladimir Lenin.
Uh, there are dozens and dozens of rock cairns in Antarctica—DIY landmarks—and there’s a whole Soviet cemetery down there, and there’s a tractor at a the Soviet Vostok station, which they just left there when they were finished building it because what the hey, why bother bringing it back to Russia. You might need it again later. I only mention it because it’s also a designated historical site and has a plaque on it.
And then speaking of cairns, this one is not an historical cairn but it is my favorite cairn:
Somewhere on the Ross Ice Shelf, there WAS once an above-ground cairn containing the bodies of Robert Falcon Scott, captain of Butter Point, and his two buddies, Lt. Henry R. “Birdy” Bowers, and Dr. Edward Adrian Wilson, who froze/starved to death after they were stranded inside their tent in 1912. They’d been trying to race Roald Amundsen to the South Pole and they lost, then perished trying to get back home. When they were discovered eight months later by a search party, their bodies were buried in their tent, rather than taking them out and dismantling the tent. They just flattened it and built a rock igloo around the whole thing.
HOWEVER. Oh, lord, I love this. In the century since Scott and his comrades died, the cairn-tomb has been slowly traveling, because it’s erected on 360 feet of ice, on the Ross Ice Shelf, right? But after 102 years, it’s also come to be buried under 53 feet of ice. So thanks to ice movement patterns, the cairn with the dudes inside has traveled about 37 miles away from its original geographic location. So, in another 248 years or so, they’ll have traveled to the edge of the ice, where it meets the sea, but will be buried by more than 325 feet of ice by then! They’re way, way inside of the ice shelf, like a peanut in some peanut brittle.
BUT they’re not just gonna pop out of the ice and land in the sea in 250 more years. They’re expected to break off as part of an iceberg before they get to the ice front at the water, and then… they get to float around the Southern Ocean in a fricking iceberg, 350 years AFTER they died, which tops the list of all-time best ways to be buried, if you ask me. Way better than being shot into space, even.
Well, OK, the iceberg will eventually melt, so then I guess fish and stuff get to eat you. Or maybe you will wash up in Tierra del Fuego or something before that happens. You’ll be like a message in a bottle. SO MANY POSSIBILITIES.
This photo was taken the day they found out that Amundsen beat them to the Pole. Kinda ticked.
(Hilaridorably, someone has put Robert F. Scott on Find-A-Grave. The joke is! You can’t! It’s buried under 53 feet of ice!)
Another interesting tidbit that I just love: Adolf Hitler had a keen interest in Antarctica and wanted to establish a German foothold there, so they could scout out a location for a naval base, but ALSO? Because they primarily used whale oil in their margarine, soap, and lamps! In the 1930s, Germany was the second-largest purchaser of Norwegian whale oil (Norway being the first) and they were worried about being able to continue to import it, what with the impending war. So Hitler launched an expedition in the late ’30s to the other side of the world, in order to get on the inside track on whale oil. His team zoomed around and photomapped about 135,000 miles of Antarctica, which they named New Swabia (Neuschwabenland) under the Nazi flag.
But they never made a formal claim on it, and then Nazi Germany didn’t really pan out in the long run, as you may have heard, so New Swabia belongs to Norway now. It’s still called that, but it’s a “cartographic area” of Queen Maud Land, which is about as meaningless as you can get in a geopolitical title. It means “someone made a map of this one time and said it was theirs, and someone else saw that map once and remembered the name and was like hey, someone already named this place, saves us time on thinking of a new one. But it still belongs to us. We’ll let your dog keep the name you gave it, because it answers to that name, but, uh, it’s our dog now.”
What else. Antarctica is the driest, the windiest, and the coldest place on Earth. Coldest temp ever recorded in history, at −128.6. I have to admit I was kind of disappointed when I read that. I thought it was gonna be like negative 267 or something. I mean, I would still die all the same at -128.6. I wouldn’t be unimpressed enough to not die.
Winds of over 200 miles an hour as well. I’m happy to report that I AM impressed by that. That’s like a jet. I guess kind of a crappy low-rent airplane. Still, that a lot of miles for one hour.
Also impressed by the greatest ice thickness ever measured being in Antarctica, which is 14,000 feet. Which you hear and you’re like, OK, that’s a number of a thickness, sounds like probably a lot, who knows, but guys, let’s talk about 14,000 feet because that’s Mt. Rainier. That’s two and three quarters miles of ice. If someone took that ice and moved it to the right, if they clicked rotate right, and made, like, a plateau out of it for you to walk on—I suppose the person who would be doing this is some kind of god, I don’t really know much about those but I guess they can do that? So if that happened, and you wanted to walk from one end to the other, it would take about an hour. To walk along the thickness of the ice blanket. People usually talk about snow in inches, so… it’s not measured in inches or even feet in Antarctica. They have snowfall (uh, ice-fall) in miles.
I do have a strong interest as well in the people who live and work in Antarctica, at McMurdo or what have you. Back in 2009 when nobody in their 20s had a job and I had just gotten kicked out of New York and was skulking back to Seattle, I ended up living in a mansion with eight other kids, and a few of my roommates and I made a pact that if we couldn’t find work soon, we would answer this Craigslist ad that was recruiting cooks/dishwashers for a 6-month stint at a research station in Antarctica. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t think for one second that washing Antarctic dishes would be glamorous or magical, but I did a little research on it and there’s a distinct culture going on down there. Folks from 27 nationalities form a community. I realize now that there are more people who want to work in Antarctica than are jobs available, but it was a nice kick in the pants, to get my mind whirring and hatching on it, thinking about a place I never thought much about prior. And it meant that I accdentally found this very charming list of Antarctic slang words.
(I have trouble believing that anyone could call a cup of coffee a “grumble bucket” with a straight face, but maybe these people are ESL.)
So, like, yeah, ever since then, I’ve been horrifed-ly dreaming about it. WHAT IF YOU LIVED IN THIS PLACE. What if that was your home AND your job, every day, all day. What if you lived in a settlement with 19 other people and, like, those were your people foreseeably, overarchingly. And then if you didn’t like them or you wanted a change of pace or to go take a walk and get out of your science hut for 20 minutes, well, too bad because you will die just by going outside. To say nothing of being able to escape from the town-village, because you can’t do that either. What if you were there and what would you do? No long, hot showers! No vintage boutiques! No karaoke dive bars! No Netflix on Demand! No Caffe Fiore! No Amazon Local grocery delivery filled with salted caramel Häagen-Dazs or drums of cheese balls or Haribo Gummi Raspberries or whatever junk food you normally can have whenever the whim strikes you! No going online and booking a flight outta there when you get sick of it! Not a lot to spend your money on at all, really. Think! THINK ABOUT IT, MAN. You’d be screwed! You’d have to use your brain to remember stuff! You’d have to develop interpersonal skills and new things to talk about! You’d have to work out your problems when you have arguments with your co-Antarcticans! Hellish, especially for a lazy, tech-spoiled. socially avoidant, no-eye-contact-making Seattleite like me.
Public transportation is pretty bad in Antarctica. OneBusAway doesn’t even work there.
I think it’s like people who like horror movies? And they get off on being afraid but they know it’s not real and that’s part of the thrill as well? I freaking hate horror movies, and maybe I don’t have that kind of suspension of disbelief when i’m actually watching human beings get hacked up on film, before my eyes, but I think I get a similar kind of adrenaline buzz from wondering about geographic places inside my mind. My brain is never confused about whether I’m actually there or not—it’s clear that I am not—so It’s the concept that gets me all jazzed. The possibilities. All the many ways in which Antarctica could just come around the corner while you’re making out with your boyfriend and take both you out in one swipe. Terrifying and thrilling!
I guess that’s all. I think Antarctica is scary and stupefying, like every other of the world’s frozen hellscapes that I’m perversely into. The horror.
My boyfriend and I are traveling to Australia in February and there are a handful of tourism shops that charter flights and cruises to Antarctica out of Melbourne, and I’ve been stupidly daydreaming about taking a short side trip there, even though they’re outrageously expensive. I won the Aussie trip and everything’s paid for, so it’s like, well, I might be willing to sink some of my own cash into an experience like that, because when else will I have the chance? The main thing that’s stopping me is that they don’t let you get out and walk around; you can either fly over and look out the window for a thousand dollars, or you can cruise in and out of the fjords (probably not that close to the land, re. ice) on a boat for ostensibly slightly fewer dollars. So I couldn’t say I’ve “been” to Antarctica.
But even getting near it would be a big deal. Using my eyes to look at it. My heart is getting all wild and pre-sobby over here from thinking about this. Can you even imagine?