Image: Anne Noble
Antarctica. The word often conjours to mind images of eery icebergs, immense glaciers, classical symphonies, and penguins. Lots of penguins. For most people it exists on the very fringes of their existence, as that white smudge protruding from the bottom of the world map, or an exotic location ventured into only by explorers, scientists, photographers and madmen. For others it is the face of climate change, projected onto screens in living rooms throughout the globe, where it exists as a symbol but is disconnected from its physical presence of 14,000,000 square km of ice.
Antarctica is much more than the ice at the end of the world, or a convenient location from which to shoot footage of calving glaciers to accompany reports on the state of the environment. Instead it is a continent, host to many dynamic ecosystems, diverse environments, and a sprinkling of scientists who live and eat and sleep and go to the bathroom sheltered in the haven of their Antarctic bases. That’s right, I just used ‘bathroom’ and ‘antarctica’ in the same sentence. It’s a side of the continent we don’t often think about, but for the 5000 summer and 1000 winter workers who live there, it is far more ‘real’ than pan shots of emperor penguins or the brilliant reflections of icebergs under the midnight sun.
Antarctica has been cast in many ways over the past 100 years – so many, that if the continent were a film star it would be guaranteed an Oscar or two by now. The Ice, as Antarctica is known by those who live or have spent time there, has been used to stand for many different ideas. Whether or not they represent reality is another question, but some of the most prevalent associations are below:
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 wee small man in the corner, where he remains dwarfed by the expanse of white. You know the typical man-never-set-foot-here-before kind of a heroic pose, featuring the subject leaning into the blizzard, and typically presented in grainy black and white even though it was shot in full colour high definition in billboard resolution? Yeah, that’s this idea in a snapshot, capturing the moment the untouched becomes claimed. And this leads us on nicely to…
The 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) just add to the mystique. 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 too much for the senses to handle. Sublime goes beyond beauty, extending into the realms of terror. Traditionally, the Great Ice Barrier and the tempestuous weather of Antarctica have been associated with the former, 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 take the lion’s share of the emotional response to the landscape. That’s a pity really, but just in case you were thinking the dangers had all been conquered, just shift your gaze to the next version of Antarctica, where the melting ice is used to…
Personify Climate Change. You know the images: The Larsen B ice shelf breaking up and departing from the Antarctic Peninsula, as viewed from space; chunks of the Pine Island Glacier tumbling down 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, and leave the complicated dynamics of the ice cap to one side, lest anyone ask questions that require technical knowledge to answer: 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. Plus all photos taken in Antarctica are automatically photogenic enough to make the cut come prime time news.
Photos may make Antarctica seem closer and more familiar to an everyday audience, but its geographic remoteness holds the key to its appeal for those travellers wanting to tick off all seven continents. For those who have been to Africa, Asia, Europe, Australasia and the Americas, a two day crossing of the Drake Passage is all that stands between 85% and a full seven out of seven. Visiting Antarctica is a pilgrimage that allows such travellers to ‘collect a set,’ as it were.
So, there you have it: five sides of Antarctica. The continent is not a pentohedron by any means, and there are many more sides to be explored. 900 words is barely enough to make a dent, but at least the icebergs, symphonies and penguins have been given a nudge to make room for the new perspectives that are waiting in the wings.