Creating a Map of Antarctica has been a challenge for man for over a century. Learn about all the seemingly insurmountable challenges which cartographers still face nowadays, in one of the harshest and enigmatic places on earth.
Almost twice the size of Australia, and covering an astonishing area of 14,000,000 square kilometres, Antarctica is the fifth-largest continent in the world. The mapping of this remote, rugged yet mesmerizing continent has been an arduous venture, one which still continues to this day. The unique geography of Antarctica presents colossal challenges to cartographers and geographers.
Seafaring explorers who sailed around the continent mapped Antarctica’s coastline first, yet the inhospitable interior has proven to be a tad more arduous obstacle to overcome. Not a difficult thing to understand, given the harsh and unpredictable weather in Antarctica. Planes, satellites and scientific balloons are nowadays used to fill in the gaps on the Map of Antarctica’s interior, and it is this portion of the continent that is still endlessly explored and mapped. Yet no matter how fine-tuned modern equipment can be, boots on the ground are the only thing which can categorically confirm the topography of this awe-inspiring, and ever-changing, place. To map Antarctica’s remotest nooks and crannies, someone still has to be willing to go there.
The Myth of Antarctica
Antarctica may have been finally recognised as a continent in 1840, yet interestingly enough, the existence of it was surmised over 2,000 years ago. Ancient Greek geographers were convinced there had to be a considerable landmass at the southern end of the world to ‘even out’ the land they knew in the north. They named this fabled continent Anti-Artikos, to denote its polar opposite location to the northern Arctic, and it is from here that Antarctica derived its modern name.
James Cook was the first person to sail over the Antarctic Circle. He sailed here between 1772 and 1775, after he set off to find the fabled Terra Australis Incognita (whose existence he eventually and rightly dispelled) and discovered Australia, New Zealand and an array of other islands instead. After his vast explorations of the Pacific, where he visited many islands, including South Georgia and Easter Island, he deduced that the Antarctic continent would be found much further south. Certainly further south than the ice barricade he encountered.
The first known landing on Antarctica was made in 1821, and the first people to venture this far south were seal hunters. Exploration of Antarctica didn’t really explode until the end of the 19th century, but when it did, it progressed at lightning speed. The Heroic age of Antarctic Exploration (read all about the most famous explorers of Antarctica) culminated in the Race to the South Pole, famously won by explorer Roald Amundsen. Reaching the southernmost geographical point on earth was a feat that would go down in history, yet as far as creating a Map of Antarctica, man was still a colossal way off.
Map of Antarctica: modern solutions for age-old problems
Fast forward almost a whole century and you have intrepid modern explorers like Polar Geospacial Centre cartographer Cole Kelleher, whose work at McMurdo Station includes setting out for gruelling multi-day hikes, with a camera strapped to the end of a pole on his backpack. The new Trekker technology used is supplied by Google, and the images captured have been used in its Street View Map feature. The missions are said to be understandably difficult, given that the camera itself weighs over 20 kgs, and the fact that cartographers must trek through some of the toughest topography on the planet. Yet for all the hard work, the rewards are immense.
The images captured are simply spellbinding, click here for more.
Modern technology is arguably at the forefront when it comes to completing a comprehensive Map of Antarctica. High-tech helium-filled balloons, which are risky to use in populated areas (lest they injure anyone as they land back on earth) have the run of the field here in this vast and isolated land. They carry scientific instruments and can capture images from tremendous heights of up to 40,000 metres, from the stratosphere above Antarctica. The latest research balloons launched in Antarctica have been funded by NASA, and although much of the research is aimed at understanding meteorological events like solar flares (and their effects on our planet), the photos beamed back also help cartographers perfect their Map of Antarctica.
Understanding the Map of Antarctica
Antarctica is the most unique of all our continents. As far as we know, there has never been an indigenous population who lived here and, technically speaking, there are no permanent residents. Instead, Antarctica is home to an array of research stations run by several countries and staffed by (mostly) scientists who work on a rotational basis. Their research is allowed on the proviso that it is for scientific purposes only. A treaty is in place which secures Antarctica’s access be for peaceful purposes only, and safeguards its pristine environment.
On the Map of Antarctica below, you can see the location of the various research stations.
The geographical South Pole, as highlighted on the map by a red flag, is the southern ‘fixed’ point at which the earth’s axis connects to the surface, and it is here that all the lines of longitude converge. The spot is marked by a plaque which honours Amundsen and Scott – the first men to have set foot on the southern ‘tip’ of our planet – yet since the whole surface area rests on a floating ice shelf, the plaque is moved about 10m every year to account for the nomadic wanderings.
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Author: Laura Pattara
“Laura Pattara is a modern nomad who’s been vagabonding around the world, non-stop, for the past 13 years. She’s tour guided overland trips through South America and Africa, travelled independently through the Middle East and is now in the midst of a 5-year motorbike odyssey from Germany to Australia.”