Associate Professor and ARC Future Fellow Elizabeth Leane is one of three University of Tasmania authors to feature in the international expert series Earth, with the release of her latest book South Pole: Nature and Culture. Here is an excerpt from the publication.


"It is hard to think of a stranger place than the South Pole – if you can call it a place at all. Humans have theorized its existence for millennia, but our history of actual encounter with the South Pole is remarkably short – a little over a century. Many people equate it with a whole continent – Antarctica – but the Pole itself is technically just a point. There is no doubt about its cartographic position: 90 degrees south.

But try to locate the Pole on a standard map and you may find yourself tracing out a line along its bottom; it does not slot easily into our conventional ways of looking at the world.

The South Pole is a place that has fascinated humanity for hundreds of years, inspiring exploration, myth, and legend in equal measures.

In the popular imagination, the South Pole is the most remote point on the globe. However, as one of two points where Earth’s rotational axis meets its surface, it is also about as central a place as you can find: the whole planet revolves around it. The topography of the Pole is both remarkable and tedious: it ‘sits’ atop several miles of ice, on a largely featureless plateau. There is not, on the face of it, a lot to recommend the place: it is dark for half the year; its freezing climate is entirely hostile to all organic life above the level of the microbe; its economic value is minimal; and it is a long way from anywhere.

In the early decades of the twentieth century, however, this point on Earth was more sought after than any other. Six nations’ territorial claims now meet there, although it remains, like all of Antarctica, unowned.

Sign marking the Geographic South Pole.

My aim here is to tell the story of humanity’s relationship with the Pole – one that begins in speculation and imagination, moves  through  exploration  and  tragedy,  becomes  rooted in settlement and science, but remains open to geopolitical machinations. 

This story pivots around two key historical events, nearly 50 years apart. One is the first arrival of explorers at the Pole: the Norwegian Antarctic Expedition led by Roald Amundsen reached the longed-for point in late  1911. They were followed about a month later by a five-man British party led by Robert Falcon Scott, all of whom died on the return leg, generating a tragic story that has eclipsed Amundsen’s success in the public imagination. The other event is the construction of the first scientific station at 90 degrees south by the United States in 1956–7, named ‘Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station’ in honour of the two expedition leaders. The very existence of a permanent station points to one of many important differences between the North and South poles. Unlike its northern counterpart, the South Pole is solid.

A Norwegian newspaper promises readers Amundsen’s own narrative of the South Pole expedition, sent by telegram. The Norwegians’ arrival at the Pole had been announced from Hobart on 7 March. The photograph of Amundsen is actually a publicity shot taken near his home, not far from Oslo, prior to the expedition.

Although it is ice rather than land, it can be built and lived upon, meaning that its history of human interaction has been quite different from that of the Arctic pole.

I also want to complicate the story of the South Pole as it is popularly told. I have been talking here about the South Pole, but there are, as I will explain, many ‘South Poles’, not all of them stationary. While my focus is primarily the Geographic South Pole, from time to time I turn to various ‘other’ poles. And despite Antarctica being dubbed the ‘continent for science’, I want to emphasize that the Pole is not just a natural place, a goal for explorers and an important site for scientists. It is also a very political and contested place, as well as a cultural place, one that is continually re-imagined and represented. The South Pole is a real point on the Earth that can be visited – tourists pay a large price to do so – but it is also a highly charged symbol.

At first glance, the Pole might seem an impossible subject for the writer, let alone the artist or photographer. How much is there to say about a remote point on an ice plateau that cannot even be located without complicated observations and calculations? As it turns out, a great deal – much more than can be squeezed into a book of this size.

Images and ideas have accreted around the Pole during thousands of years of geographical speculation, and the previous century, with its sledging journeys and overflights, international political negotiations, scientific investigations, infrastructure construction, environmental crises and tourist visits, has added many new meanings and mythologies."

This book attempts to weave together these diverse facets of the South Pole.

South Pole: Nature and Culture is part of the series Earth by London publisher Reaktion Books, which also includes Cave: Nature and Culture by Associate Professor Leane's English program colleagues Professor Ralph Crane and Dr Lisa Fletcher. 

Read more about Associate Professor Leane's research here.

About Associate Professor of English and ARC Future Fellow Elizabeth Leane

Associate Professor Elizabeth Leane is studying the passion for literature that the hostile continent of Antarctica evokes, and the power in turn of literature to influence what we think and feel about Antarctica. Her work highlights the need for a presence of the humanities as well as the sciences in Antarctic research.

View Associate Professor of English and ARC Future Fellow Elizabeth Leane's full researcher profile