Way, Way Down Under: Exploring Mapping of the Earth’s South Pole

Living on the east coast of the United States, one gets used to cold mornings, grey days, blustery winds, and the occasional freak snowstorm.  Given the weather and the fact that January 17th, 2024 marked the 251st anniversary of Captain Cook’s crossing of the Antarctic Circle, it seemed like a really great time to highlight the Cartographic Branch’s holdings relating to the exploration of the Antarctic region as a whole.  Spoiler alert – this involves some really cool maps!

Although Antarctica has been 100% mapped and charted by satellite imagery, there are places that humans have not ventured to this day because of the harshness of the terrain.  Coming in at fifth largest among the continents, it is arguably first in terms of mystery due to inaccessibility and lack of on the ground knowledge.

Though this area was possibly known to the ancient Greeks, Aristotle may have only been guessing when he posited in his work Meteorology , written in 350BC,  that,

“There are two inhabitable sections of the earth: one near our upper, or northern pole, the other near the other or southern pole; and their shape is like that of a tambourine. If you draw lines from the centre of the earth they cut out a drum-shaped figure. The lines form two cones; the base of the one is the tropic, of the other the ever visible circle, their vertex is at the centre of the earth. Two other cones towards the south pole give corresponding segments of the earth. These sections alone are habitable. Beyond the tropics no one can live: for there the shade would not fall to the north, whereas the earth is known to be uninhabitable before the sun is in the zenith or the shade is thrown to the south: and the regions below the Bear are uninhabitable because of the cold.”

Indeed, the earliest maps in the collection depicting this area shows it labeled as “Terra Australis Incognita”, or “Unknown Southern Land”.  The Polus Antacrticus Map was originally published in the 1630s by Johannes Jassonius.  According to an earlier blog post written by Brandi Oswald entitled, “Chronicling Cartographic’s Oldest Records: The Polus Antarcticus Maps,” the Cartographic Branch actually has two copies of this map.  These maps both come from donated collections.   The first of these two maps comes from the series Personal Research Materials Related to Antarctic Expeditions and Climate Research (Paul A. Siple Collection), while the second map comes from the series A. Lincoln Washburn Maps and Papers.  The two copies of this map can be seen below.

XALW. Lincoln A. Washburn Maps and Papers. Illustrated Map of Antarctic Region. Ca. 1650. NAID 70187163.

Be sure to check out Brandi’s post for a deeper dive into the story of these two maps.

The next map, located in the same donated materials as the first Polus map above, is especially interesting since it shows no trace of any sort of land mass at the  South Pole.   Almost  85 years after the previously mentioned maps, this map entitled “Atlas Page Showing Antarctic Region, ca. 1714,” by Guillaume de L’Isle,  leaves the area almost entirely open, except for one small spot labeled “Isle vue diton par F. Drake” which translates from French to English as “Isle view said by F. Drake.”

XSIPL. Paul A. Siple Family Papers. Personal Research Papers Related to Antarctic Expeditions and Climate Research, 1908-1968. Atlas Page Showing Antarctic Region. Ca. 1714. NAID 70187160.

The next set of maps in our journey can be found in RG 263: Records of the Central Intelligence Agency – Published Maps.  These maps show, as their titles indicate, the Discovery and Exploration in Antarctica in the Pacific, Indic, South American, and African Quadrants.  This grouping takes a wide view of the many nations exploring this area at the time, including the United States, the United Kingdom, Japan, Norway, France, and Germany.  Information here is taken from views seen from the sea or an ice shelf, seen or surveyed from the air, or seen from the land.  Landing spots are also noted and previous expeditions are noted on these maps in red.  If this is your area of interest, this particular grouping offers up a spectacular amount of very accessible information and historical data in plain language.

I chose to include this next map because of the strangeness of the layout of the image.   This map comes from the same series as the ones immediately above, RG 263: Records of the Central Intelligence Agency – Published Maps.  Titled simply, “Antarctica,”  this map depicts “the Arctic and Adjacent Regions As seen from the southern hemisphere through a transparent globe”.  Admittedly, this view took me a minute to get my head around, but the basic premise is that you are looking through the South Pole to see the North Pole.

RG 263: Published Maps. Antarctica. Ca. 1949. NAID 159082246.

The map below is basically the same map, minus the stacked view of the North Pole in the background.  Looking at this map, it is entirely possible to understand why there are still places on this landmass as yet physically unexplored.

RG 263: Published Maps. Antarctica Relative accessibility: Pack-Ice, Icebergs, 32 Degrees/F. Ca. 1949. NAID 159082153.

From here, we take a leap way forward in time to around 1950s to 1960s, and switch to British mapping activities for a bit. In RG 330: Maps of Antarctica, we are treated to a view into the United Kingdom’s Antarctic explorations at that time.  A series of three maps depict areas in and around the area known as Dronning Maud Land.

RG 330: Maps of Antarctica. United Kingdom Group. Map 23. 1954. NAID: 2837801.
RG 330: Maps of Antarctica. United Kingdom Group. Map 24. 1965. NAID: 2837801.
RG 330: Maps of Antarctica. United Kingdom Group. Map 23. 1969. NAID: 2837801.

You may be asking yourself at this point, “Who, exactly, is in control of the fifth largest continent on earth?”  Well, in order to understand the current situation, we have to look back in time to December 1st, 1959, the day that the Antarctic Treaty was signed.  According to the Secretariat of the Antarctic Treaty, there were seven signatories – the United States, Australia, Chile, France, New Zealand, Norway, and the United Kingdom.  The United States and Russia also maintain “a basis of claim,” meaning that they basically have the option to make a claim for territory, but have not yet done so.

Some of the main provisions of the treaty include:

–          Article I: Antarctica shall be used for peaceful purposes only.

–          Article II:  Freedom of scientific investigation in Antarctica and cooperation toward that end… shall continue

–          Article III: Scientific observations and results from Antarctica shall be exchanged and made freely available

–          Article IV: No acts or activities taking place while the present Treaty is in force shall constitute a basis for asserting, supporting or denying a claim to territorial sovereignty in Antarctica or create any rights of sovereignty in Antarctica. No new claim, or enlargement of an existing claim to territorial sovereignty in Antarctica shall be asserted while the present Treaty is in force.

Since 1959, other countries have joined the treaty. (1)

The map below, found in RG 263: Records of the Central Intelligence Agency – Published Maps , details all of the land claims at the time that the map was created.   As you can see from the map, everyone wanted access to the South Pole location itself, thus the pieces are almost all wedge-shape terminating at the pole. The map below shows the locations of all Antarctic Area Stations, which seemed to be a very fitting way to end this post. 

RG 263: Published Maps. Antarctic Region. NAID 266784093.

The power of human determination and drive is on full display throughout this trip across land and time as we went from an outline drawing that we weren’t even sure was real to the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, a permanent research station located at the South Pole.  For more information about the station, please visit the United States National Science Foundation page here.

Sources cited:

  1. Website. Secretariat of the Antarctic Treaty. https://www.ats.aq/e/antarctictreaty.html

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