On March 27, 2015, the temperature in Antarctica hit a record high of 63.5° F (17.5° C) on the northern peninsula. For American readers still reeling from a cold winter, the news that Antarctica was 18 degrees warmer than a shivering New York City hit a nerve. Headlines about the record high went viral. Newsfeeds and Facebook feeds weighed in on what a balmy Antarctica might say (or not say) about the future of our planet.

Part of the reason the new temperature record grabbed attention was because of Antarctica’s role in the popular imagination. Most of us have never visited the southern continent, but we believe we know it intimately: it is a barren, icy wasteland, the most opposite place imaginable to a bustling metropolis like New York City. It is linked in our imagination to the Arctic, its northern twin, also an icy wasteland. We know these things because our popular culture tells us so: because we saw John Carpenter’s The Thing or have a calendar with a photo of a baby seal on an ice flow.

While some of our impressions of the polar regions are accurate, others mask ecological complexities. The Arctic is a frozen ocean surrounded by land; Antarctica is a landmass surrounded by ocean. The Arctic has a long history of human habitation; Antarctica does not. As E.C.H. Keskitalo has observed in Negotiating the Arctic: The Construction of an International Region, our tendency to conflate these regions poses problems for scientists and for the indigenous arctic peoples whose existence is often papered over by the image of the Arctic as an unpopulated wasteland (p. 28). Environmental activists, too, face challenges when they invoke polar ecosystems in discussions of climate change. Yes, it’s disturbing to hear of a warm Antarctica – but the southern continent is one of the remotest places on Earth. Surely what happens in Antarctica, stays in Antarctica.

The history of how we imagine extreme geographies helps explain why we can find it difficult to grasp – or take responsibility for – environmental changes in areas like Antarctica. In Western European cultures, areas like the poles, the atmosphere, the subterranean, and the ocean have traditionally been considered exceptional spaces, legally as well as physically different than the land of a kingdom or nation. To “own” land, as John Locke famously argued, one had to mix one’s labor with the soil – in short, to farm: “As much land as a man tills, plants, improves, cultivates… so much is his property.” But what about areas like Antarctica, which cannot be easily converted into farmable property? Such areas remain part of a global commons, belonging either to everyone or to no one. They are imagined as spaces for which no one person or nation is responsible.

This is not to say European nations did not try to claim extreme geographies like Antarctica. Famously, the world’s oceans were the subject of centuries of legal debates. Hugo Grotius claimed in Mare Liberum (1609) that the sea, like the atmosphere, “cannot be possessed,” (p. 24) but serves instead as a natural commons for the human race. The English lawyer John Selden challenged Grotius’s argument, arguing that the division of the ocean by “Latitude and Longitude” demonstrated that the ocean could be treated as bounded property (p. 138). Grotius’s argument carried the day, and the ocean became a truly international space in law as well as in cultural imagination. One important qualification was added to Grotius’s vision of the ocean as global commons: if a nation could fire on and destroy ships from its shores, than clearly those portion of ocean subjected to cannon-fire must be considered an extended part of that kingdom’s territory. From this piece of brutal pragmatism comes our concept of “domestic” versus “international waters,” with “international” designating those waters our artillery can rake. Beyond the range of our artillery lie international waters, where the nation has to abandon its claims.

The ocean has served as the imaginative model for all kinds of unusual geographies, sometimes with strange results. The potential relationship between the ocean and the frozen seas of the Arctic or Antarctic is easy to understand; so too is Europeans’ habit of referring to the atmosphere, after the invention of the hot air balloon, as a great ocean of air. The comparison of subterranean cavern systems to the space of the ocean is perhaps harder to understand, although it becomes easier when we read references to eighteenth-century miners navigating with compasses and entering caves hollowed out (they believed) by the world ocean.

These regions were not automatically assumed to be beyond the reach of national property. In 1821, the polar explorer William Edward Parry boasted of pushing back the “the limits of the habitable part of the world” by establishing a “colony” in the high Arctic (p. 74). He spoke proudly, too, of his attempts to establish “a small garden… with radishes, onions, mustard and cress” on his icebound ship – agricultural cultivation being the root of the word “colony” (p. 176). But Parry’s garden died, and so, too, did many of the men in his unlucky colleague, John Franklin’s, expedition. By the time Parry returned to the high Arctic on his third voyage, his optimism had evaporated. The polar landscape now seemed “death-like” in its stillness, an alien region in “which a human spectator appears out of keeping” (p. 40-41). Once seen as a potential colony, the high Arctic now seemed to Parry to be a site like the ocean: an inhospitable zone, within which no human being could long survive without contact with land, and the fresh water, food, and social contact land could offer.

This leads us to another difficulty we have in imagining areas like the ocean as vulnerable spaces in need of environmental protection. For much of human history, these spaces were rightly perceived as dangerous. Men at sea and polar explorers alike perished from scurvy and famine, thirst and madness if they spent too long in extreme spaces. Miners suffocated underground, or went mad after exposure to poisonous gases. Early hot air balloonists – the first people to travel through the atmosphere – likewise suffered from strange symptoms caused by thin oxygen, and perished in fiery accidents. To venture away from national property – to enter a space that is the forever outside property and civilization – is to subject yourself to slow bodily disintegration. To quote the movie Gravity – the latest fictional work to take advantage of our interest in exceptional spaces – life in these regions “is impossible.”

So where does this leave us? While on one hand, organizations like the U.S. National Committee for the International Polar Year advocate invoking histories of exploration in modern-day environmental campaigns, that history has contributed to some of the cultural challenges we face in assuming collective responsibility for our planet. Despite our imagining of spaces such as the ocean and atmosphere as permanently “outside” the zones of human habitation, we need to find ways of incorporating such spaces into our imagined fields of care; of perceiving ourselves and our lives as intrinsically connected to some of the most far flung ecologies of the Earth.

Siobhan Carroll’s book, An Empire of Air and Water: Uncolonizable Space in the British Imagination, 1750-1850, is now out with the University of Pennsylvania Press.


Image Credit:  Mike Beauregard via flickr

About The Author

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Assistant Professor

Siobhan Carrroll is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Delaware, where she teaches courses on Romanticism and contemporary science fiction. Her scholarship on the intersection of exploration, science, and literature has appeared in journals like European Romantic Review and Extrapolation. She is currently working on a book on the politics of global ecology in the long nineteenth century.