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Photo Credit: Michael Studinger/NASA
The Sentinel Range in the Ellsworth Mountains, where U.S. and Bulgarian place names dominate.

What's in a name?

No international guidelines exist for national committees on geographic features

More than 100 features in the Sentinel Range, a mountain range that comprises the northern half of the Ellsworth Mountains in West Antarctica, sport names like Ahrida Peak, Padala Glacier and Lardeya Ice Piedmont.

Ahrida is the medieval name of the Eastern Rhodope Mountains in Bulgaria. Padala is a settlement in western Bulgaria. Lardeya refers to a medieval fortress in southeastern Bulgaria.

The prevalence of Bulgarian names in the 115-mile-long mountain range has raised the eyebrows of at least one long-time person associated with the U.S. Antarctic Program (USAP) External U.S. government site and later the Antarctic tourism industry.

Map of Antarctica
Photo Credit: Wikipedia
Location of the Ellsworth Mountains.

John Splettstoesser External Non-U.S. government site, a geologist who began his affiliation with the USAP in 1960 and who has been working in the tourism industry until recently, has said “saturation naming” by a country seems to go against the spirit of how geographic features are named in Antarctica. [See main article — A new standard: U.S. 'raises the bar' on using personal names for geographic features in Antarctica.]

“I think this is something that should not be taken lightly,” he said.

Eight of the 10 highest peaks in Antarctica are found in the Sentinel Range, including the tallest mountain, Vinson Massif. The 16,050-foot-tall mountain is named after U.S. Rep. Carl G. Vinson of Georgia whose “active interest and vision played a large part in U.S. government support of Antarctic exploration in the period 1935-61.”

Lyubomir Ivanov, chair of the Antarctic Place-names Commission within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Bulgaria External Non-U.S. government site, said that the board has approved 138 names in the Sentinel Range between September 2010 and January 2014. As of January 2014, there were 1,159 Antarctic place names in the Bulgarian Antarctic Gazetteer External Non-U.S. government site.

Map of islands.
Photo Credit: Bulgarian Antarctic Place-names Commission
Map of Livingston Island and nearby islands produced by Bulgaria.

“The 1995 Toponymic Guidelines of the Antarctic Place-names Commission of Bulgaria External Non-U.S. government site apply to Antarctica as defined by the Antarctic Treaty,” Ivanov explained by e-mail, “without instructing how to choose particular areas for Bulgarian place-naming.” 

Locations where Bulgarian scientists have worked do play an important yet partial role, according to Ivanov. For instance, the Bulgarian Antarctic Institute External Non-U.S. government site has named a number of features around its Antarctic base of St. Kliment Ohridski External Non-U.S. government site  on Livingston Island in the South Shetland Islands. Bulgaria has created a number of maps in the region, including topographic maps of Livingston Island and Greenwich Island in 2005. It made the first topographic map of Smith Island in 2009.

“We mostly give names where we believe that they would be most useful for potential users including scientists (both for fieldwork, publications or other scientific use), map makers, logisticians, navigators and tourists,” Ivanov explained. “In all cases the prospective features must be nameless, well identified and provided with detailed standard descriptions.”

People lean against orange vehicle.
Photo Courtesy: Charles Bentley/Antarctic Photo Library
Charles Bentley, far left, and members of the Sentinel Mountains traverse team.

Most of the other named features in the Sentinel Range were mapped during seismologist Charles Bentley’s External Non-U.S. government site overland traverse of the region in the late 1950s during the International Geophysical Year (IGY) External Non-U.S. government site, a global scientific campaign that focused research in the polar regions.

Mount Bentley, at 14,022 feet, bears his name in the mountain range that was discovered on Nov. 23, 1935, by Lincoln Ellsworth in the course of a trans-Antarctic flight from Dundee Island to the Ross Ice Shelf External U.S. government site.

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.

The SCAR Composite Gazetteer of Antarctica External Non-U.S. government site currently consists of 37,274 names that correspond to 19,257 features. The place names information has been submitted by the national names committees from 22 countries.

“The composite gazetteer is simply a compilation of the place names from national gazetteers and does not in any way vet or make judgments on those names (though we have in the past provided advice on ‘best practice’),” said Mike Sparrow External Non-U.S. government site, executive director of SCAR.

The southern half of the Ellsworth Mountains is referred to as the Heritage Range, a place where Splettstoesser said more accurately reflects what he considers proper naming protocols. The combination of names approved by the U.S. Board on Geographic Names External U.S. government site are related to the historical theme of the United States (Heritage Range, Founders Peaks, Independence Hills, Patriot Hills, etc.), with later names a result of number of U.S. expeditions beginning in the early 1960s.

Aerial view of mountains.
Photo Credit: Peter Rejcek/Antarctic Photo Library
McMurdo Dry Valleys

“All the names we proposed were a factor of ‘boots on the ground’ and merited as a result,” Splettstoesser said.

The McMurdo Dry Valleys External U.S. government site in southern Victoria Land, where many U.S. researchers work in the austral summers, also show what Splettstoesser calls “saturation naming” of every possible peak, hill and ridge.

“I have no objection to the density of names on virtually every possible feature, but the process seems to invite a ‘dumping ground’ of naming of features because the topographic mapping is thorough and precise,” he said by e-mail, “and it is also an area (with mainly bedrock exposures) that invites a search for an unending process of finding new features for new names.”  

Splettstoesser said “raising the bar” for naming of future geographic features, as the United States has recently done with the application of personal names, appears to me to be a step in the right direction. 

“A consensus of all [Antarctic] Treaty parties to adopt a sensible set of guidelines would also seem to be an insurmountable task,” he said, “whether taken by SCAR or any other Treaty body of authority.”

Return to main story — A new standard: U.S. 'raises the bar' on using personal names for geographic features in Antarctica.