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Aerial view of glacier in mountains.
Photo Credit: Elaine Hood/Antarctic Photo Library
The Ferrar Glacier, in the McMurdo Dry Valleys, was named for Hartley Ferrar, geologist on Capt. Robert Scott's British National Antarctic Expedition (1901-1904). The United States recently changed the rules on applying personal names to geographic features in Antarctica.

A new standard

U.S. 'raises the bar' on using personal names for geographic features in Antarctica

Those seeking immortality in Antarctica will find the bar has been raised – at least when it comes to being honored by having a geographic feature named after them.

A couple of years ago, the U.S. Board on Geographic Names External U.S. government site, at the request of the Advisory Committee on Antarctic Names (ACAN), changed the rules External U.S. government site regarding how geographic features in Antarctica should be named by the U.S. government. The stricter rules regarding the adoption of personal names of living people for geographic features reflect the fact that much has changed since the early days of exploration.

“In the old days, just going to Antarctica was a lot of effort. These days there are large national programs, there’s a tourist industry – it is much easier to go there,” noted Scott Borg, head of the Antarctic Sciences Section External U.S. government site in the National Science Foundation’s Division of Polar Programs External U.S. government site.

Borg is currently the chairperson of ACAN, which is composed of active and retired federal employees from the National Science Foundation (NSF), NASA External U.S. government site, USGS External U.S. government site and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency External U.S. government site.

The new policy, citing the differences between the ‘old days’ and modern era, says the “honor of having a geographic feature named for individuals should now be based on some significant contribution that goes well beyond successful participation in some Antarctic-related enterprise.”

“More recently, we have turned things down,” Borg said, adding that while proposals will still be reviewed case by case, people who are put forward for a geographic feature should be at or near the end of their Antarctic career.

“We felt it was appropriate to say, ‘If we really want this to be honorific, we should raise the bar,’” Borg said. “The new policy in no way means to diminish the contribution of those honored previously or implies that those people were any less deserving of the recognition of having a feature named after them. In fact, many names that had been applied would have passed the threshold we have today.”

Painting of ship near iceberg.
Image Credit: William Hodges/Wikipedia
Capt. James Cook was the first to name features in Antarctica. A drawing by William Hodges of Cook in Antarctica.

Started with Cook

The naming of places in the Antarctic and sub-Antarctic goes back to 1775 when Capt. James Cook discovered South Georgia and the South Sandwich island groups, according to the UK Antarctic Place-names Committee External Non-U.S. government site website. The former was named after King George III, while the latter island chain was named in honor of John Montagu, fourth Earl of Sandwich.

The South Shetland Islands and northern Antarctic Peninsula were first sighted in 1819 and 1820–21 by William Smith and Edward Bransfield from the Royal Navy ship Williams. They named about 20 major features, including King George Island (after George IV) and Smith Island (after Smith). Royal Navy admirals lent their names to Cornwallis and Clarence islands. Not all features were named after people: Tower and Desolation islands are descriptive designations.

These categories of place names – important figures and sponsors, expedition members and descriptive features – set the tone for place-naming in the region ever since, according to the article “Naming the un-named” in Geographical Magazine by Adrian Fox and Kate Bazeley.

“The place names on the Antarctic Peninsula are shorthand for its history,” they wrote. “The jigsaw of clusters of related names shows how the geography of the region was slowly pieced together – first by successive exploratory expeditions and later by surveyors and scientists. Many of the names evoke the adventures and hardships of these pioneers.”

Scientific era dawns

A new era in Antarctic exploration was ushered in during the 1950s by the International Geophysical Year (IGY) External Non-U.S. government site, a global scientific campaign that paid special attention to the polar regions. The Antarctic Treaty External Non-U.S. government site came into force in 1961, a relatively simple but straightforward document that set aside the continent for peaceful purposes, with scientific research at the heart of the new endeavor.

Nations like Britain, Argentina, Chile and Australia put aside their territorial claims with the signing of the treaty. The need to name geographic features, however, grew in importance as more of the continent was explored and mapped. 

More than a score of nations that are members to the Antarctic Treaty system have national names committees, from major players like the United States and Britain to countries with smaller programs like Bulgaria. Since 1996, naming activities have been coordinated by the Scientific Committee for Antarctic Research (SCAR) External Non-U.S. government site, an organization of the International Council for Science External Non-U.S. government site.

Vehicles sit on ice.
Photo Credit: Olav Loken/Antarctic Photo Library
The International Geophysical Year ushered in a new age of scientific discovery, and the need to create maps and designate geographic features across Antarctica.

The SCAR Composite Gazetteer of Antarctica External Non-U.S. government site, begun in 1992, currently consists of 37,274 names that correspond to 19,257 features, compiled from 22 nations. The U.S. Antarctic gazetteer External U.S. government site contained 14,094 place names in January 2012, nearly 70 years after it was first compiled in 1943. The unofficial count in June 2014 was 14,124.

Early mapping efforts

Of course, one of the main reasons behind naming a feature is to ensure it accurately refers to a particular place.

Antarctic maps created before the age of satellites and high-precision GPS technology were certainly useful and accurate to a remarkable degree. But today’s high-resolution satellite imagery has enabled Antarctic cartographers to make maps with features geo-located within tens of meters of their actual locations. Previously, such locations may have been off by hundreds of meters or more.

“They were doing their absolute best to place the names accurately,” said Brad Herried External Non-U.S. government site, cartographer and web developer at the NSF-funded Polar Geospatial Center (PGC) External Non-U.S. government site at the University of Minnesota External Non-U.S. government site, of the earlier mapping efforts. “The place-name coordinates were the most precise they could get with the technology of the day.”

Traditional survey methods using tools like the transit and theodolite to measure both horizontal and vertical angles produced excellent local maps at the time, Borg noted. A reference point called “camp area datum” at McMurdo Station, established using astronomical observations, helped make maps for areas of scientific interest such as the McMurdo Dry Valleys External U.S. government site.

However, charting more remote locations on the continent was not practical without introducing systematic errors in latitude, longitude, and elevation.