Environmental Humanities in Antarctica

In this blog post, Dr Adrian Howkins, programme director of the new MA Environmental Humanities, discusses how his research on Antarctica brings crucial humanities perspectives to Antarctic research, and how this approach is embedded in the new MA programme.

Field camp at Lake Fryxell in the McMurdo Dry Valleys, Antarctica
Field camp at Lake Fryxell in the McMurdo Dry Valleys, Antarctica by Eli Duke CC-SA 2.0

Since the late-1950s the McMurdo Dry Valleys have become a major centre for Antarctic science. As an environmental historian, I have been able to contribute novel forms of ‘data’ to the scientific understanding of the region, such as using Captain Scott’s diaries to understand environmental change over the past 120 years.  As a historian, I am also well-placed to ask questions related to themes such as political power, social relations, ideas about conservation, and connections to global themes.

I am currently working with a geographer and a glaciologist to write a co-authored book on the history of the McMurdo Dry Valleys.  Some of our major findings support the fact that a human and historical dimension to conservation is vital.  These include:

  • The science taking place in the McMurdo Dry Valleys is used by national programmes to support their political interests in Antarctica. The US flag, for example, flies proudly from the Lake Hoare scientific field camp, offering a powerful refutation of New Zealand sovereignty claims to the region.  This means that successful conservation needs to take into account the geopolitical implications of environmental management.
  • The past 30-years have seen an increase in gender equality among scientists working in the McMurdo Dry Valley. Female scientists who may previously have been put off research in the region by its highly masculine culture, now make major contributions to the scientific work. The number of scientific publications on the region has increased significantly during the recent period, suggesting that greater gender equality may help to promote a productive scientific culture.
  • Traditional approaches to environmental management don’t always take humanities-focused values into account. For example, the value of ‘wilderness’ is often taken for granted, while our work shows that some countries working in the region (e.g. Japan) do not always share these values.  By raising questions about the goals of conservation and the cultural values behind them, our work calls for more focus on the human dimensions of Antarctic conservation.
  • Our work in the McMurdo Dry Valleys exemplify many of the themes and trends associated with the proposed new geological epoch known as the Anthropocene. Work in the region is made possible by carbon intensive technologies such as helicopters and ATVs, while at the same time, scientific work in the region highlights the consequences of anthropogenic climate heating.  Lake levels in the region, for example, have risen by over 16m since the time of Captain Scott as a consequence of more meltwater flowing from the alpine glaciers during the relatively warm summer months.
  • Through our historical research in the McMurdo Dry Valleys, we not only hope to make a contribution to the scientific understanding, but also to make the region a model for interdisciplinary research involving the environmental humanities in other parts of the world.

Our work suggests that many of the challenges facing the McMurdo Dry Valleys – and the Antarctic continent more generally, and even the rest of the world – cannot be successfully addressed without taking into account perspectives traditionally studied by humanities scholarship.  Such work requires a willingness to take a collaborative approach and be open to different approaches and practical skills.  As authors, we hope to model this ‘radical interdisciplinarity’ not only in our book on the history of the McMurdo Dry Valleys, but also in our teaching.  The new MA in environmental humanities at the University of Bristol, for example, has a strong element of collaborative and interdisciplinary training and is underpinned by activities in Bristol’s Centre for Environmental Humanities.

Find out more about MA Environmental Humanities at Bristol

Dr Adrian Howkins is Reader in Environmental History at the University of Bristol.

Finding Shackleton’s ship: why our fascination with Antarctica endures

Adrian Howkins, University of Bristol

The discovery of Ernest Shackleton’s ship the Endurance in pristine condition at the bottom of Antarctica’s Weddell Sea was one of the few good news stories this month.

It marked the coming together of modern stories of technological and logistical achievement with older tales of exploration and struggle. Located 3,000 metres down, 107 years after it was crushed by ice, finding the Endurance was a significant moment in polar history.

As a result of his egalitarian leadership style and the fact he “never lost a man”, Ernest Shackleton is one of the most admired explorers of Antarctica’s “heroic age”. This spanned a 20-year period of intense exploration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that became most famous for the race to the South Pole between Britain’s Captain Robert Scott and Norway’s Roald Amundsen in the summer of 1911.

Shackleton’s Endurance expedition set out in 1914 with the goal of becoming the first to cross the whole continent, but the loss of his ship led instead to a desperate struggle for survival. Stories of polar exploration have always captured the popular imagination, but what are the implications of this enduring fascination?

Obstacles, goals and distractions

The extreme environment of Antarctica features prominently in the story of the search for the Endurance, as the Weddell Sea is notoriously dangerous for shipping. The use of state-of-the-art technology adds an extra layer of interest, and the striking images produced by the expedition immediately transport us to this distant, murky, undersea world.

In the current tense geopolitical environment, there is something reassuringly optimistic about the search for the Endurance: a classic narrative of overcoming serious obstacles to achieve a spectacular goal.

A similar sense also helps to explain the excitement generated by the heroic age of Antarctic exploration in the early 20th century, much in the way space exploration excites people now. When the Endurance set sail for Antarctica from London in 1914, this too was a time of geopolitical tension, with imperial rivalries escalating into the first world war.

The expedition was given instructions to proceed because the government thought the Antarctic adventure would serve as a morale-boosting distraction. But when his ship became stuck in the ice and then sank, Shackleton’s original goal of crossing the continent gave way to the simple desire to stay alive.

Heroes, problems and challenges

While there is much to celebrate in the exploits of polar explorers, the enduring fascination with polar exploration also poses some challenges. A tendency to focus on the heroic age over all other periods of Antarctic history means that other interesting episodes are frequently overlooked. Just because Antarctic exploration served as a distraction from the complexities of imperial politics, for example, does not mean that the continent has stood outside wider imperial history.

In the early 20th century, Britain drew upon the exploits of its polar explorers and scientists in making its sovereignty claim to the Falkland Islands Dependencies, known today as the British Antarctic Territory. Assertions of sovereignty made by 19th century British explorers and whalers helped to justify the British claim in international law.

The 1959 Antarctic Treaty, which functions as the overarching governing mechanism in the region, perpetuates the connection between science and politics by requiring a country to conduct substantial scientific research on the continent before it can be admitted as a full consultative member.

The number of consulative parties has increased from 12 to 29 today, with an additional 25 non-consultative parties having the right to attend meetings but not particpate in decision making. Taking a broader perspective not only widens an appreciation for the history of Antarctica, but can also add depth and nuance to the history of exploration.

Polar exploration also tends to be a history without much diversity. A single expedition from Japan broke the near monopoly of white male explorers during Antarctica’s heroic age. While not surprising for the early 20th century, this lack of diversity raises important questions about who is included and who is excluded from heroic age narratives – and who benefits from the ongoing interest. If you can’t see yourself reflected in those who feature in prominent stories about Antarctica, it may be harder to make an emotional connection to the continent and want to pursue a career there, for example.

The same goes for women and the contribution they have made to polar exploration over the last century. Very little is heard of their work and endeavours. Visiting Antarctica over the past few years, I have seen a growing gender balance in polar science. But the prominence of groups of white men in the publicity photographs of the Endurance search expedition gives the impression that not much has changed over the past century.

Another potential problem of the ongoing interest in exploration and adventure is that it tends to set up a relationship of conflict between humans and the non-human natural world. This is rarely binary, and explorers often demonstrate a deep appreciation for the polar environment.

But at the heart of interest in Antarctica during the heroic age was a desire to demonstrate individual and national prowess through the conquest of nature. Viewed from this perspective, interest in the heroic age might be seen as perpetuating the attitudes of control and dominance over the natural world that have contributed to our current environmental crisis.

A sepia photograph of polar explorer Ernest Shackleton.
Ernest Shackleton. Olga Popova/Shutterstock

The finding of the Endurance is a welcome reminder of Shackleton’s incredible story of survival. But we need to start thinking a little more critically about the values and attitudes embedded in our continuing fascination with polar exploration and adventure.

Doing more to acknowledge the gender and racial politics of the heroic era might help to start a conversation about the enduring inequalities that persist in an effort to move towards a more diverse Antarctic community, and beyond the achievements of early 20th-century white men.

Adrian Howkins, Reader in Environmental History, Department of History, University of Bristol

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Frozen Empires Revisited

Dr Adrian Howkins, Reader in Environmental History (Bristol), reflects on the new paperback edition of his book, Frozen Empires.

The recent release of the paperback edition of Frozen Empires: An Environmental History of the Antarctic Peninsula, offers an opportunity to revisit the arguments I made in this book and reflect on how it continues to shape my work in Antarctica and thinking about environmental history.  The book sets out to frame the mid-twentieth century Antarctic sovereignty dispute among Argentina, Britain, and Chile as an environmental history of decolonization.  Through a strategy I refer to as asserting ‘environmental authority’, Britain used the performance of scientific research and the production of useful knowledge to support its imperial claims to the region as a territory known as the ‘Falkland Islands Dependencies’.  Argentina and Chile both contested Britain’s claim, and put forward their own assertations to sovereignty based on a sense that this was their environment as a result of proximity, geological contiguity, and shared climate and ecosystems.  In the contest between British assertions of environmental authority and Argentine and Chilean ‘environmental nationalism’ it was the imperial, scientific vision of the environment that largely won out.  There was no genuine decolonization of the Antarctic Peninsula region, or the Antarctic continent more generally.  Instead, the 1959 Antarctic Treaty, which remains in force today, retains pre-existing sovereignty claims in a state of suspended animation (‘frozen’ in the pun of the treaty negotiators) and perpetuates the close connection between science and politics across the Antarctic Continent. 

Much of my work since researching and writing Frozen Empires has focused on the history of the McMurdo Dry Valleys on the opposite side of the Antarctic continent.  I am a co-PI on a US National Science Foundation funded Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) project, collaborating with scientists to ask how historical research might inform our understanding of this unique place.  The McMurdo Dry Valleys are the largest predominantly ice-free region of Antarctica and since the late 1950s have become an important site of Antarctic science.  Geologists are attracted to the Dry Valleys by the exposed rock, geomorphologists by the opportunity to study the glaciological history of the continent, and ecologists by the presence of microscopic ecosystems.  The close connection between politics and science that I identified in the Antarctic Peninsula is also applicable to the history of the McMurdo Dry Valleys.  The two most active countries in the region, New Zealand and the United States, can both be seen as making assertions of environmental authority to support their political position.  A major difference is that now I find myself on the inside of this system, working with scientists to help produce the ‘useful information’ that is being used for political purposes.

Working as more of an insider in a system I critiqued in Frozen Empires raises a number of awkward questions.  Can I retain a critical distance?  Am I contributing to the perpetuation of an unequal system?  What might the decolonization of Antarctic research look like?  These questions are not easy to answer.  Not infrequently I find myself looking back on the lack of inhibition I felt while researching and writing Frozen Empires and wishing for something similar in my current research.  Academic collaboration by definition leads to entanglements, and these entanglements increase complexity.  It is much easier, for example, to write critically about the imperial history of Antarctica than to convince scientific colleagues that this imperial history continues to have an impact on contemporary scientific research. 

But for all the messiness and difficulties involved in collaboration, there are also tremendous opportunities.  I have learned a lot about how science gets done through working with the McMurdo Dry Valleys LTER site, and I have learned about working as part of an academic team.  Place-based studies offers an ideal opportunity for interdisciplinary research, and I think it is vital to have humanities perspectives represented in these collaborations.  It takes time – often more time than expected – for effective collaborations to develop, and this process involves a significant degree of mutual learning.  Researching and writing Frozen Empires fundamentally shaped what I bring to the table as an environmental historian in the McMurdo Dry Valleys project, and I remain convinced by its argument for imperial continuity.  But the process of engaging in collaborative research has unsettled at least some of my earlier positions, and the book I’m writing on the history of the McMurdo Dry Valleys will likely be quite different to Frozen Empires


Header image: American base at Stonington Island, by Mark Sykes at Wikimedia Commons