Antarctica: A Biography by David Day

Chris Turney reviews a history of attempts by Antarctic explorers to conquer the southern continent

February 21, 2013

Never has a continent been more misunderstood. Antarctica is on a scale hard to grasp: at more than 14 million sq km, it is second only to Russia in coverage of the Earth’s surface and bigger than all the countries of Europe combined. It is the world’s highest continent with an average altitude of 2,300m, and contains more than 70 per cent of the world’s fresh water, locked up as 30 million cu km of snow and ice. The wildlife along its fringes is some of the most diverse on the planet. But the Antarctic remains one of the planet’s last great unexplored regions.

Yet its human history is short: Antarctica was the last continent to be discovered and explored. During the late 19th century, an exasperated John Campbell, Duke of Argyll, declared in London that a “very large area of the surface of our small planet is still almost unknown to us. That it should be so seems almost a reproach to our civilisation”. We have only ventured south during the past two centuries. Land was sighted for the first time in 1820, landfall was made in 1821 and people stayed for their first winter in 1899.

Explorers may come and go, but their deeds continue to echo through the ages. That is the overwhelming conclusion of David Day’s Antarctica: A Biography. Tellingly, though, this is not a history of the continent’s existence. Rather it is a biography of human endeavour, from the earliest discoveries - or lack thereof - of what lay to the South. Starting with the efforts of the explorer James Cook to discover a “Terra Australis Incognita” - the great southern continent purportedly existing to balance land in the North - Day describes in detail the efforts by individuals and, later, nations to discover, exploit and claim this frozen land. It is very much a human story.

Day weaves a masterly tale of expeditions and their leaders in this hugely detailed and well-researched tome. There are some absolute gems with new insights for even the most avid readers on the subject. I did not know that official US interest in the South started with a fantastic idea touted in 1818 by an army officer named John Cleves Symmes. Apparently Symmes made a convincing case that the Earth comprised “several concentric spheres, with polar openings”, thousands of kilometres across. These openings were claimed to provide a route of access and migration to an inner sphere of perpetual light for native American people and animals. Although the idea was on the outlandish side, it appealed to a large section of the American public, fuelling calls to find northern and southern entry points to the supposed Utopia of the inner world. Incredibly, the idea resulted in the first significant US sojourn in the South, led by Charles Wilkes; an expedition destined to cause as much controversy as it generated scientific discovery.

Day’s Antarctica is a timely reminder of the relatively short but intense history of human exploration of the last continent to be discovered. However, his focus on the competing claims for the Antarctic at times leads him to neglect other aspects, most prominently the scientific value of this amazing landscape. I am not sure I agree with his conclusion that Antarctica’s “dangers and its terrors have been largely conquered”. The continent has a tragic habit of catching trespassers off guard.

Despite more than a century of discovery - including aerial and satellite surveys - remarkably little of Antarctica has been explored on the ground. And this sense of discovering the unknown continues to excite. As the great explorer Ernest Shackleton remarked in 1914: “A lot of people say ‘Don’t go and do spectacular things,’ but deep down in the hearts of everyone who goes to the South Pole is the desire to do something which is of interest to their country.”

The spirit of adventure remains today. Ranulph Fiennes’ audacious quest to be the first to cross Antarctica through the long winter darkness is set to start on 21 March. Battling temperatures as low as -80ºC, Fiennes intends to collect a slew of scientific data in this most extreme of environments. There is so much to do - and so much more that can be done.

Antarctica: A Biography

By David Day

Oxford University Press, 624pp, £25.00

ISBN 9780199670550

Published 24 January 2013

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