Emergence Magazine

Antarctica the Woman

by Stephanie Krzywonos

Photo by Tim Thomas, National Science Foundation / CC BY-NC-ND 4.0


Stephanie Krzywonos is a Xicana nonfiction writer. Her forthcoming, debut book is Ice Folx, an intersectional memoir set in the Antarctic underworld. She has written about her experiences on “the Ice” for Sierra Magazine, Ofrenda Magazine, The Willowherb Review, Kosmos Journal, The Dark Mountain Project, The Behemoth, and The Antarctic Sun.

Stephanie Krzywonos interrogates heroic narratives of Antarctica, written almost entirely by white men, that gender the land through feminine tropes. As she comes to know this expansive landscape, she invites us to consider the continent on its own terms, as a living place with agency.

Antarctica always was his mistress—bury him there.

—Emily Shackleton

ONE OF THE STORIES we tell ourselves about Antarctica is that it is white.

Seven years ago, McMurdo, the largest research station on the continent, became my home. Bundled into twenty-two articles of extreme cold weather gear, I waddled out of a US military Globemaster and into a thirty-five-million-year-old winter. I could barely take it in—the cold, the expanse, the Spain-sized glacier below my feet—before drivers ushered me and the other new arrivals into a monstrous red vehicle named Lucifer. As we cruised fourteen miles across the Ross Ice Shelf toward “town,” I pulled off a mitten, dug a now useless credit card out of my wallet, and used it to scrape off the breath-frost fogging the window. Outside, the snow looked only white, printer paper white. There were miles and miles of more and more white. I hadn’t learned to see the colors in it yet.

A few days before, in the shimmer of Aotearoa New Zealand’s late spring, I lounged near a group of Antarctic veterans, one Black and the others White. We were on a break between training sessions about staying alive, never venturing into a whiteout, and cleaning our outdoor gear so we don’t contaminate the southernmost continent with invasive seeds, mosses, and lichens. I was twenty-nine, a White-passing Xicana, and a burnt-out pseudo–social worker—not a scientist. But neither were most of the people in Antarctica. We were the working-class logisticians who agreed to grueling hours in harsh conditions to make Western science in Antarctica possible.

The chummy group stood in a circle, bantering about their upcoming field season. They kept calling Antarctica “the Ice”; then someone referred to the Ice as a she, not an “it.” As in: She’s fierce. Was I hearing correctly? Were they talking about a person?

Whether I heard them accurately or not, I accepted it, adopted it uncritically—the metaphorical she. Why not? In maritime tradition, boats are often shes. I usually christen my cars as dudes. We refer to Earth and Nature as mothers, as shes. Who was I, a newcomer, to question this she?

I returned to Antarctica for seven seasons, believing my labor would protect the frozen landscape I’d come to love, one that felt like both the end and the beginning of things.

Eventually, I learned to see the colors—the obvious violets, roses, golds, grays, blues, and brasses reflected by snow. I could also discern snow’s subtle variations: shadow white, tusk white, shell white.

Antarctica is a storyteller. The story we like to tell about her shifting body is an ancient one she tells about herself by gussying up her surface with mesmerizing shapes and textures, archiving air and stardust and microplastics in her body, allowing her glaciers to slither off the continent and crack into the sea. Though it clasps the continent on two sides, the triangular Ross Ice Shelf is the largest floating piece of ice in the world. According to micropaleontologist Reed Scherer, quoted in a National Geographic article, the shelf “‘has come and gone probably many times in the last million years.’… It likely collapsed during a warm period 400,000 years ago. But [Scherer] believes it could also have collapsed as recently as 120,000 years ago.” In March 2000, the Ross Ice Shelf calved an iceberg the size of Jamaica. “Calving”—the official term for when a glacier releases chunks of ice from its edge—is the same word used to describe the birthing of cows and other large animals.

Antarctica is the windiest continent on Earth. Sometimes the wind is so robust, so steady, you can lean on it, trust it with your weight. Antarctica is also the driest continent, technically a desert, even though it holds most of Earth’s fresh water. On average, Antarctica’s interior receives a mere two inches of new precipitation per year. Stormy days don’t always mean new snow. Wind often whips around old snow, tiny icy particles, the shattered appendages of snowflakes.

Thirteen polar winters before I wintered here—when the sun abandoned us for over four months—a massive storm hit, one nicknamed The Big Blow. Before a forecasted storm, we walk around the station, picking up or strapping down anything—a scrap of wood, a metal pipe—that could become a projectile. But people told me the usual preparation didn’t matter with The Big Blow. The storm itself was a projectile.

It was a Sunday morning, the only day for most to sleep in. Buildings shook, waking people up around 5:30 a.m. The storekeeper, Zoe Vida, put on earphones and tried to go back to sleep but couldn’t because her bed quaked along with the building. In town, the Weather Department’s wind gauge recorded 96 miles per hour before the wind destroyed it, and Crary Lab’s gave up recording at 116. In the hills above town, the strongest gust clocked in at 188.4 miles per hour. Nearby, at Black Island, the sustained wind speed—not a gust—was 157. With windchill, the temperature plunged to –65 degrees Fahrenheit. The Big Blow snapped three thick power poles, shattered windows on thirty vehicles, ripped whole bay doors and siding off of buildings, rolled shipping containers uphill, bent a metal flagpole 45 degrees, and tore a roof off a small building. The storm sucked a window out of its frame and packed an unoccupied room with snow. When chef Bobby Loglisci stepped outside, probably to throw out trash, he needed to cling to a dumpster “to keep from blowing away.” Later while he was cooking, someone came to the kitchen to tell him there was “a ruckus” in his dorm room. He opened his door to find his window ripped from its hinges. As snow filled his room, the storm’s scream sounded “like a freight train.” In a different building, part of a window “crossed a room like a bullet, causing an exit wound on the other side.” The storm found the dorms’ tiny holes and cracks, flinging drifts of snow into rooms with intact windows. Most impressively, The Big Blow severed a seventy-four-foot-diameter lid from the empty fuel tank it was welded to and tossed it fifty feet into the middle of the road. According to one witness, the storm folded the round 46,000-pound metal lid in half “like a taco.”

The Big Blow also covered everything it touched in new snow.

Antarctica-the-woman—the shatterer, the discoverer of cracks and holes, the one who leaves fuel tank lids on the path—added a gleaming white layer to my world. A block in the road always creates a new path. One day, it was as if I came home to find my window blown out and a new roommate waiting for me: snow packing my dorm room floor to ceiling with white.

The idea that Antarctica is barren and lifeless, one of the most clichéd stories we tell about the Ice, has roots in what some ancient and medieval men imagined the Ice to be: a terrifying wasteland populated by monsters.

FRIDTJOF NANSEN—a White, Norwegian Arctic explorer and celebrity—never ventured to Antarctica but had an outsized influence on the so-called Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration (1897 to 1922). He described the northern polar region in his bestselling book, The Polar Night, as “a marvelously lovely woman,” pure, proud, and with “curves … so noble” but with “no trace of compassion for the little sufferings of despised humanity.” To Nansen, her “bosom’s white chastity” was as “feelingless as the snowy ice.”

Roald Amundsen, another White Norwegian and in many ways Nansen’s successor, picked up the metaphor. As he and a group of men sledged south across the southern ice cap, he wrote of a “castle in the distance. The Beauty … still sleeping.” The prone unconscious woman, both “inviting and attractive,” was the geographic South Pole. When Amundsen’s group reached Pole in 1911, the first to do so, they each gripped the Norwegian flag as it pierced the snow.

Richard E. Byrd, a White US naval officer who wintered in Antarctica alone and was part of the first group to fly over the South Pole, envisioned populating this continent with a “colonializing network of ‘Little America[s],’” of which he, of course, would be the leader. Byrd described the Ice as “an enchanted continent in the sky, like a pale sleeping princess. Sinister and beautiful she lies in her frozen slumber, her billowy white robes of snow weirdly luminous with amethysts and emeralds of ice … [a] luring land of everlasting mystery.”

Frank Hurley, the photographer on Shackleton’s lauded yet failed Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of Endurance shipwreck fame, described Antarctica as losing “all its charm and beauty,” becoming “featureless, sullen, and sinister.” After three of his companions died on the same expedition on the other side of the continent, Ernest Joyce journaled: “The Antarctic is a hard mistress.”

In my notebooks, I scribbled adjectives other Heroic Age explorers had used to describe Antarctica: virginal, pure, mysterious, untouched, beautiful. To me, the early metaphorical descriptions seemed to swing between a pretty and frail maiden who needs wooing and a cold queen, a monstrous femme who threatens emasculation and death: barren, empty, void, frigid, wild, chaotic, wrathful, harsh, dangerous, unforgiving, sinister, destructive. Some of the verbs they used to describe their intentions are telling: conquer, subdue, beat. In an interview, Bill Manhire, a novelist and New Zealand’s inaugural poet laureate, summed it up: “Antarctica is often gendered as female in polar literature—a body that brave men must penetrate and tame.”

For a few centuries before the Heroic Age, esoteric theorists speculated that the South Pole was a hole, a vortex, a sort of orifice in Earth’s body. These men conjectured that currents descending from a whirlpool at the North Pole traveled through the planet’s core and “gush[ed] outwards at the South Pole,” writes Eric G. Wilson in The Spiritual History of Ice. Strange fantasies about Antarctica swirled for over two thousand years before the first documented sighting of the mainland in 1820. In his book Meteorology, Aristotle postulated a landmass at the bottom of the globe and gave it a name: Antarktikos. “The poles appeared as blank screens on which men projected conflicting desires,” writes Wilson. These desires demonstrate, at best, ancient men’s “yearning for polarity, a harmony between opposites, and their longing for hierarchy.”

For millennia, Antarctic fantasies vacillated between extremes. The idea that Antarctica contained a civilized race in a fecund, gold-filled paradise persisted through the late eighteenth century. One French explorer returned to Paris in 1772 and described Antarctica as replete with “wood, minerals, diamonds, rubies, precious stones, and marble.” (Millions of years ago, Antarctica was part of supercontinent Gondwanaland, a green jungle teeming with ferns and trees and the ancestors of dinosaurs.)

The idea that Antarctica is barren and lifeless, one of the most clichéd stories we tell about the Ice, has roots in what some ancient and medieval men imagined the Ice to be: a terrifying wasteland populated by monsters. Among the supposed demonic freaks: the sixteen-fingered Antipodes, the cannibalistic Anthropophagi, and the Blemyae, whose breasts have eyes and mouths.

McMURDO’S LIBRARY is a cozy space curated by volunteers. The books and magazines, all donations, have no due date. A half-finished puzzle usually rests on a coffee table near green couches that hug you as you sink into them. Behind the librarian’s desk: mugs, a hot water heater, packets of tea and hot chocolate. Small quilts, oil paintings, and handmade porcelain animals adorn the room. Light glows through a translucent cross-stitch in the window that reads: Love Everyone.

During my fifth season, having absorbed Antarctic literature and lore for a few years, I marched to the library and halted in front of a shelf of polar books that had been set apart from the rest of the stacks. The more I’d read, the more the same patterns and themes emerged: noble heroism, competition, male camaraderie, stoicism and strength in the face of severe conditions, albeit self-imposed conditions. I was seeking stories by or about women on the Ice because I couldn’t see myself in most of the adventure stories written almost exclusively by and about White men. This glaring absence made sense: until 1969 American women were banned from working in Antarctica. I didn’t always recognize this place I was coming to know in these stories either; for me, Antarctica wasn’t a backdrop, but a living place with agency. Arms crossed, I craned my head to the side, reading titles and bylines on blue spine after blue spine, scanning for books by or about women. None of the authors stood out as being obviously people of color or queer folx. I pulled every book that met my criteria off the shelf. I stood embracing the weight of the entire stack of women’s books in my arms. The bookshelf still looked full.

The only one I’d read was Terra Incognita, by Sara Wheeler, a White English travel writer who had visited McMurdo many years before on an artist’s grant. I saw myself in Sarah’s inward journey. “The geographical questions may have been answered,” she wrote, “but the metaphysical ones remain, and the most foreign territory will always lie within.” I shared her awe for the Heroic Age explorers. In the book’s final scene, Wheeler lies on Robert Falcon Scott’s bed in Terra Nova, the hut his legendary expedition erected in 1911 before he died on his return from the South Pole the next year. Wheeler falls asleep, his pillow cradling her head.

At first, the image of a woman curled in the smelly, stale bed of a tragic polar explorer struck me as a poignant tribute. Four years later in the library, the memory of that scene disturbed me. I had led many tours as an interpretive guide at the Terra Nova Hut, as well as a few other huts used by Ernest Shackleton’s and Edmund Hillary’s expeditions. Meticulously restored by a team of conservationists, the huts functioned as shrines to exploration. The Antarctic Treaty is an international agreement that forbids mineral extraction and military activity for anything other than peaceful purposes while prioritizing scientific research—it also legally protects these huts. I wasn’t agitated because Human Resources would fire me from my job if I lay on Scott’s bed (they would); it was the way the efforts and presence of women in Antarctica consistently got little to no attention while people still frothed about which man stepped where and saw what first.

Is this nostalgia for the White male explorers themselves, or what they represent?

The anchor from a supply ship for Ernest Shackleton’s expedition remains buried after a severe storm tore the ship from its moorings in 1914.

Photo by Mike Lucibella, National Science Foundation

“WOULD YOU LIKE to cross-country ski with me tomorrow morning?” asked Rosalyn—the kind Asian American woman who worked in IT—as we brushed our teeth in the women’s community bathroom on a Saturday night. Sunday was one of my two days to sleep past 4:45 a.m. I’d been struggling with insomnia and the four-month-long day. “Me and Anne Dal Vera?” she added, lifting her brows.

I only knew that Anne was a coordinator for one of NASA’s programs and a prolific skier. I discovered after I’d said no, thanks, I’m too tired that Anne was part of the all-White, four-person American Women’s Trans-Antarctic Expedition in 1992. They skied 670 miles from the edge of the continent to the South Pole, each lugging two-hundred-pound sleds of survival gear. As responsible explorers, they made wills, each agreeing to have her body buried in a crevasse in case of death en route. They took turns leading and rotated tentmates nightly to stay emotionally connected as a team. Physically, they suffered from pain, fatigue, bruises, blisters, frostbite, tendinitis, bronchitis, and ankle injuries. The terrain took a psychological toll, too. Thirty-five days in, Anne contemplated suicide. “The sameness of the activity is wearing on me, giving me a weariness that is frightening,” she journaled. Anne chose to keep skiing, pushing one foot in front of the other across hard snow contorted by wind.

Day 59, only eight days out from Pole, was uncanny. A dot above the horizon morphed into a US military LC-130, which had diverted from its usual route between McMurdo and Pole to find them. The crew airdropped sundries for the explorers, including a single fresh rose. Shortly after, Antarctica shook. “I stopped, my knees shaking,” Anne wrote, “and looked all around me for the ghost I was sure had passed. The others were standing braced, as shocked as I was.” The cause wasn’t an avalanche, earthquake, seismic field party, or collapsing crevasse. Antarctica’s whiteness is so heavy that it is pushing the dark continent beneath it deeper into Earth’s mantle. The terrifying shaking was merely the snow settling.

On the 66th day, Anne wrote in her journal, “Oh. To live passionately. That is what this has been for me.”

The next day, they made it to Pole, elevation 9,301 feet. Anne touched the ceremonial marker at the same time her three companions did, all of them, alive.

Before the expedition, they had struggled to fundraise, even after trimming their budget to less than $1 million. A similar six-man expedition a few years before had cost $11 million. The only corporations that offered the women sponsorship, which is how Antarctic expeditions are usually funded, were beer and tobacco companies. The explorers turned them down because of their educational and environmental mission. Ann Bancroft—the leader of the expedition, the first woman to reach the North Pole on foot, and an openly bisexual woman and gay rights advocate—suspected sponsors weren’t interested because they thought the women might fail, either dying or needing rescue, and that their journey wouldn’t garner enough media attention to make their sponsorship pay off. The corporations were right about one thing: no journalist met them at the South Pole. Originally, the explorers had planned to cross the entire continent, but they cut the trip short once they reached Pole. Bancroft was willing to risk the need for physical rescue, but without the corporate dollars that men’s expeditions typically enjoy, they couldn’t take the financial risk with the time they had left before the polar winter commenced. A rescue would cost at least an additional $350,000. So the American Women’s Trans-Antarctic Expedition was re-branded the American Women’s Expedition. The first women to ever reach the South Pole on foot left Antarctica $400,000 in debt. They collectively paid it off over the next several years through speaking engagements and fundraisers. As of January 2023, there is no Wikipedia article about the American Women’s Expedition.

Even though the Ice is “protected” by the Antarctic Treaty, anyone can visit without the blessing of a government or Antarctic research program if they have the money to pay for private logistical support. Like the Antarctic Women’s Expedition, every year people spend substantial amounts of money to risk their lives and the lives of their potential rescuers to enact athletic and/or meaningful feats on the Ice. While I was there in 2016, Henry Worsley, a White former British Army officer, died while trying his hand at an unsupported solo transcontinental crossing. Colin O’Brady, a White native Oregonian and “professional adventurer,” was also in Antarctica in 2016—to complete the absurd Explorer’s Grand Slam, which involves skiing the last degree of latitude to both the North and South Poles and “bagging” the tallest peak on every continent—when he heard of Worsley. “I was fascinated that there was still this, in my mind, iconic first that had been attempted but no one had done yet,” he said to National Geographic. After Worsley died, O’Brady wanted the record for himself—and so did Louis Rudd, a White British military veteran like Worsley.

For O’Brady, corporate sponsorship was no obstacle. In an expedition he called The Impossible First, which was neither impossible nor the first, he claimed to have made the “first-ever solo, unsupported, unassisted crossing of Antarctica.” Western media ate it up. Via satellite phone, he live-tweeted and instagrammed selfies from his journey, building his personal brand while acknowledging sponsors like Sleep Number. “My mantra right now:” he tweeted on December 15, 2018, “push hard during the day, rest even harder at night. I couldn’t fit my @sleepnumber bed in my sled [single teardrop emoji], but I am committed to sleeping 7 hrs per night.” Four days later, and barely ahead of Rudd, O’Brady documented on Instagram his decision to take down his tent and ski during a whiteout storm, evidently more interested in winning than living: “Blowing snow, subzero temps and zero visibility. I packed off and headed out.” A week later, O’Brady finished his 932-mile, 54-day journey two days ahead of Rudd. When he returned, O’Brady was featured in everything from The New York Times to the front cover of Outside Magazine, from Good Morning America to The Today Show to The Tonight Show.

O’Brady was also a lively topic of conversation at McMurdo and field camps, but not for the same reasons. His was an impressive feat, but it wasn’t entirely honest. “Can you buh-LEEVE this guy?” one of the deep field camp managers—who worked sixteen-hour days, seven days per week, and occasionally “shoveled” snow with a chainsaw—scathed to me over a satellite phone. I couldn’t. We were incensed because O’Brady used the safe, smooth, flag-marked, and expensive superhighway we’d built for our supply traverses without acknowledging his advantage and still considered his journey “unsupported,” despite having a team standing by to rescue him. O’Brady’s version of “crossing Antarctica” didn’t mean traversing from coast to coast; it meant only crossing the continental mass smothered beneath miles of ice, land detectable only by seismology.

Online and in print, the adventure and polar communities dissected his expedition’s claims and deemed them exaggerated and untrue, insisting that Børge Ousland had truly clinched that title in 1997. They squabbled over what counted as “Antarctica” and “unassisted” and “unsupported.” Ousland had occasionally used a kitelike device as an assist, but he still had to traverse over sastrugi—huge, hard, demented waves of snow—something O’Brady avoided on the snow highway. National Geographic walked back some of its earlier glowing coverage of O’Brady, then excoriated him. “Our egos and imaginations seek primacy and purity,” The New Yorker explained, “[and] National Geographic has always existed, in part, to tell romantic stories of adventurers.” The New Yorker article titled “The Polar Explorer Colin O’Brady and the Problem with ‘Firsts’” ends by pointing out our reluctance to accept that “none of us are first” anymore. Maybe the deeper problem lies with cultures that glorify firsts, fastests, longests, highests, and furthests.

The morning I could have skied with Anne Dal Vera, I encountered her and Rosalyn. We only said hi and smiled at each other. When I found out an accomplished polar explorer lived and worked among us, I quizzed people: Do you know who Anne Dal Vera is? The woman who works at the Long Duration Balloon site? That no one I asked in our polar-history-obsessed outpost knew who she was or what she’d done dumbfounded me.

Antarctica-as-she, a microcosm of Earth-as-she, has the power to shake us out of complacency, with this important twist: Antarctica is not your mother.

IN THE LIBRARY, I set down the stack of women’s books and thumbed through Wheeler’s until I found the passage where Amundsen referred to the continent as his “fair one.” “Yes, we hear you calling,” he wrote, “and we shall come. You shall have your kiss, if we pay for it with our lives.” I snapped the book shut. At first that quote seemed sweet. Now it was creepy.

What if the South Pole didn’t want to be kissed by you? I thought.

What if Antarctica is a woman on her own terms?

Am I?

Raw honesty curdled my stomach as I winced. I’m not.

As I shelved Wheeler’s book so someone else could read it, a realization filled me like a blizzard fills a room: The men I idolized, my Antarctic role models, didn’t see me as their equal—and I didn’t either, not truly. As a woman, especially a woman of color, I was never meant to see myself in these stories. Of course I couldn’t. The main female character was Antarctica herself. How could I relate to such a flat caricature of a woman: a bitchy killer or a naïve maiden in need of a man?

I’d long thought of myself as a feminist, a capable woman whose self-esteem wasn’t based on men’s assessments. But I still viewed, and had only ever viewed, my own womanhood through the eyes of men, through colonialist, patriarchal, and binary lenses. I had only accepted or pushed against those frameworks, but never walked away from them. How had I never asked what my own gender identity meant to me on my own terms?

It wasn’t that I saw certain qualities as belonging to only one particular gender, but that for too long I didn’t value the parts of myself that were traditionally feminine because American culture doesn’t value what it deems feminine. I never wanted to be thought of as weak, but I’d absorbed the idea that qualities like softness, openness, gentleness, and compassion were weak—and those were the qualities that helped me not only survive but thrive in Antarctica.

For years, I believed this bookshelf was a portal, an invitation. I now knew it was a locked gate. But before I met the Ice, before this moment in the library, I had already internalized that I was never truly welcome. I knew it from the ratio of at least three men for every woman in my initial training session and the one-size-fits-all men’s survival clothing I was issued that didn’t fit quite right. On station, amid an alcohol-fueled bro culture, the expected and accepted sexual harassment continued to inform me that I wasn’t welcome. I was sexually assaulted by a man with power at a crowded party, but because some of my friends reported their sexual assaults and nothing came of it, I didn’t report what happened to me.

Why was I made to feel, even in Antarctica’s generous expanse, that there was no room for me here? Women were historically excluded from Antarctica because we were in the way of adventure on a feminized landscape. The White male explorers and the chroniclers of their stories only intended for me to celebrate their exploits, mimic their stunts, or stay out of the way.

By trying to conquer Antarctica, the Heroic Age explorers’ relationship with her became about controlling outcomes. Exploiting Earth for her “resources” is a similar attempt at control. Humans certainly affect climate change, but it’s hubris to think we can control its outcome. If the Heroic Age explorers’ relationships with the Ice weren’t as healthy as they could have been, what could healthy relationships with Antarctica, with Earth, look like for us?

Aligning land with feminine archetypes is not a new phenomenon but an ancient one. This makes sense: The first terrain we all experience is our mother’s womb. Religious studies scholar Catharine Roach argues that Mother Earth is “the oldest human religious idea.” Earth goddesses have manifested across many cultures, epochs, and locations—Gaia to ancient Greeks, Pachamama to the Indigenous peoples of the Andes, Papatūānuku to the Māori of New Zealand, Asase Ya to the Bono of Ghana. As Jane Caputi points out in her newest book, Call Your “Mutha,” to some, “Mother Nature-Earth” is not a metaphor. It’s literal. Our mater-ial being is born of matter, of mother, of soil, water, air, flora, and fauna—land. Like a mother feeding her infant, Earth sustains us with her body.

As ecofeminists like Vandana Shiva argue, how land is treated and how women are treated go hand in hand; so too, intersectional environmentalists like Leah Thomas note, does the treatment of land and any marginalized group. Many of us are so used to the idea of the Earth being a mother that we no longer feel what it’s asking of us. Rather than respond to Earth with a sense of respect and awe, we warp the mother metaphor to aid exploitation. One mother stereotype portrays her as being loving, generous, nurturing, self-sacrificing—even self-negating, prioritizing her children over everything and everyone else. American culture and systems of power don’t truly value mothers, or parenthood in general. American mothers are exhausted and so is American land—as well as other places and people we abuse—because they’re valued in the same way: as resources from which to extract.

One steeped in polar science could rightly argue that Antarctica is life-giving to humans in very direct and motherly ways, even from afar. Her ocean is a massive carbon sink. Her ice acts like a shield, reflecting sunlight and heat back into outer space. Her circular current pumps other ocean currents like a heart, regulating our weather and climatic systems. Antarctica-as-she, a microcosm of Earth-as-she, has the power to shake us out of complacency, with this important twist: Antarctica is not your mother. She’s neither your grandmother nor your sister. She is complex and refuses to be reduced to a binary role: a Madonna or a whore. She owes you nothing, not even a smile. Instead, she demands reciprocity.

People will continue using Antarctica as a stage to perform nostalgic versions of masculine heroism. And See it before it melts! cruises will continue to proliferate. But those are benign compared to a more insidious way we use Antarctica. Rather than treat Antarctica as a living place with agency, we easily reduce Antarctica’s shifting landscape to a measuring stick for climate breakdown. Science as a tool can be an instrument of healing or it can be wielded as a weapon, a convenient Trojan horse to hide geopolitical intent. We have long had enough information to know that those with the most power need to drastically change course to protect and promote life on Earth. So who and what is the scientific research in Antarctica primarily benefiting? Are we making that data worth the environmental impact of human presence on the Ice? Are more accurate sea level rise predictions being used to benefit all beings? Or is research mostly helping wealthy nation-states and corporations calculate ways to amass more “resources” and power for themselves as they strategically preserve and build their own infrastructure to withstand climate breakdown for as long as possible?

For the majority of Earth’s people, both human and nonhuman, an “apocalypse” has been unfolding for centuries: Western colonialism. But powerful White Westerners have only begun to perceive the effects of this apocalypse more recently. Was climate change—which has roots in colonialism—re-branded “the climate crisis” by powerful White Westerners because it is only now becoming a more explicit problem for them? “Climate coloniality reproduces the hauntings of colonialism and imperialism through climate impacts,” writes Farhana Sultana. And as Max Liboiron writes, “Pollution is colonialism”—so is allowing and perpetuating environmental disaster while building a self-serving fortress of infrastructure, knowing that the brunt of suffering is and will continue to be borne by poor and marginalized people.

“Scientists, artists, researchers, and base support workers, as well as government workers, travel to and work on Antarctica for a number of reasons, most of them because they love the place, they are fascinated by it, and they want to help, protect, and understand it,” argue Klaus Dodds and Christy Collis in an article on Antarctica’s colonial legacy. “But love doesn’t cancel colonialism.”

Antarctica, a feminized and abused land, aligns her body with mine—and yours. Will we—women, men, genderqueer folx—align our bodies with hers? Will we finally live as if our bodies are all made of Earth?

ANTARCTICA ISN’T JUST white on top and dark inside. She’s turning green—again. In the polar night, green spills across the darkened sky, undulating, glowing, feeding empty eyes deprived of both lushness and light. But in summer, deep in the continent’s interior, green is absent—or should be.

Once, late in the season, I heard rumors of moss just off Half Moon Loop trail. In the cold and caressed by wind under the long polar day’s blinding light, I crawled on hands and knees atop volcanic rocks, gently sweeping away snow with my mitten until small, soft green dots, latched onto rocks, presented themselves to me—gifts, omens.

Read More Stories from Shifting Landscapes

Step further into the changes enveloping us with Vol 4. Shifting Landscapes. The voices gathered here bear witness to the Earth’s changing face and offer ways to orient ourselves in this time of great loss, possibility, and transformation. Spanning 275 pages, this issue is our most photographic to date and includes a special practice insert.

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