An Anticipatory History for Antarctica
The Moment Before
In Antarctica, the unit of time, which we refer to as ‘a day’, is measured by 24 hours of sunlight during the summertime and 24 hours of darkness during winter. This is an enigma; a day is approximately the period during which the Earth completes one rotation around its axis, alternating between sun and moon, what we refer to as day and what we call night. Theoretically, Antarctica is located in all time zones as it sits on every line of longitude due to the South Pole’s location near the middle of the continent. Early southern-ocean explorers claimed the islands closest to Antarctica for their own countries, as they discovered them in the late 1700s and early 1800s. Seven Antarctic territorial claims still exist today, all using lines of longitude to define their boundaries. For practical purposes, time zones in Antarctica are usually based on these territorial claims or the time of the country they are owned by, resulting in nearby stations with different times. Some areas in Antarctica have no time zone at all since there are no temporary settlements in those locations and no clocks to keep the time. What is the moment before in a clock-less world? What is the moment before when there is no time left?
RADARSAT 1 is the first seamless mosaic of Antarctica - compiled from radar images acquired by the Canadian Satellite between September and October 1997 as part of the Antarctic mapping mission, a collaboration between the United States and NASA, and the Canadian Space Agency. Bill Clinton referred to this satellite image as “a bridge to our future and a window on our past” (International Antarctic Centre, New Zealand, 1999). Clinton ties the production of satellite imaging with the production of truth and urges the illumination of images to create awareness and positive action on the “war” on global warming. While the data of this image represents the present, the representation of the maps hints at a possible future, turning the image into a spectacle of destruction and a document that can alert a potentially threatening outcome.
Antarctica, the fifth-largest continent in the world, holds 90% of the ice on the globe and is the coldest, driest and windiest continent. 98% of Antarctica is covered by ice. It is a desert and maintains an average temperature of -49 degrees Celsius. This is Earth’s only continent devoid of native human population - each year, only 1,000-5,000 people reside in research stations across the continent. However, the icy fields conceal a surprisingly inhabitable past: 50 million years ago, Antarctica was a green, tropical continent with an average temperature of 14 degrees Celsius, beaches, rainforests, and an extremely biodiverse ecosystem. At the time, there were 1,000 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that had heated the world enough to melt all of its ice caps and raise the sea level 60 meters higher than its current state today. If the PPM keeps rising at the same rate as it does today, by 2318, all of the ice in the world will melt, sea level will rise by 65 meters, and we will achieve a full cycle - Antarctica will become a warm and livable continent once again.
By manipulating a digital elevation model of the globe, one can “cut” the world 65 meters above sea level and illustrate a speculative future image of what it might be like if all the ice caps were to melt. The familiar Mercator projection borders are shrunk into a new, unfamiliar map, where Australia has an inland sea, the state of Florida is entirely underwater, and Antarctica is an archipelago. The new Antarctic land is 5.8 times smaller than the land area that is now underwater - creating a political constraint and design problem; Can the world’s sunken land be redistributed in the now habitable Antarctic land? Which countries get to claim the land and which are left out? Antarctica with a stable flight schedule? Light pollution? A network of roads? A participant in world trade?
Following disputes over Antarctic grounds during the 1940s and 1950s, the Antarctic Treaty of 1959 put a halt to any territorial claim being made over the south pole. This treaty ensures freedom of scientific investigation, exchange, and cooperation while prohibiting any military activity. There have been no armed conflicts over Antarctica since the treaty’s signing, and unless the continent becomes habitable again, there probably never will be. For now, Antarctica remains a model for a world yet to come, where negotiations and disputes over ownership no longer occur between countries but between humanity and the climate. If the changing borders of our countries illustrate relationships of power, our changing border with the sea shows the consequences of our environmental numbness. In the moment before a drowning world, the diminutions of our borders act as reminders and a tropical Antarctica as a shiny glass mirror, reflecting the world itself.