Illustration by Casey Cripe.

The Truth About Antarctica

The only continent with no history of human habitation, the vast ice fields of Antarctica have formed a blank slate onto which humanity can project itself: all of itself, from the imperial superego to the conspiratorial id.

“Can we see what’s beyond the ice wall?”

“Quick question is there land beyond the ice wall?”

“Record the ice wall :)”

The comments sections of Dr. Peter Neff’s TikToks are filled with this sort of stuff. He’s a glaciologist and ice scientist, stationed in Antarctica over the summer and conducting vital experiments on Antarctica’s vast ice sheets and glaciers. He responds to many of these comments with humor. At the same time, he doesn’t give them too much thought.

“[My videos] are more just to show people the reality, rather than actually address the ridiculous conspiracy theories,” Neff told me, calling from McMurdo Station on the tail end of his field season in Antarctica. “They don't really deserve much air in my mind.”

The “ice wall,” or the idea that Antarctica is not a continent at the bottom of the globe but really a wall that circumscribes the Flat Earth, is a common refrain; as is the concept that “nobody is allowed” to go to Antarctica: that “they” (shady government agents) will prevent anyone from visiting, in order to keep whatever lies behind the ice wall hidden.

Photograph by Christopher Michel.

At the turn of the 20th century, Antarctica was still largely unknown. As Apsley Cherry-Garrard observed in the introduction to his classic book The Worst Journey In The World (01922): ​​“Even now the Antarctic is to the rest of the earth as the Abode of the Gods was to the ancient Chaldees, a precipitous and mammoth land lying far beyond the seas which encircled man’s habitation.” But despite the hundred-plus years of exploration, habitation, and documentation since then, Antarctica remains utterly Other. It’s far away, it’s unlike anywhere else on the planet, and most people will never go there. They’ll only see pictures, and watch classic films like The Thing (01982) which project an image of peril and isolation onto the public consciousness.

Photograph by Christopher Michel.

Where gaps in public knowledge exist, conspiracies spring into life. Any post by a scientist or public figure about Antarctica will inevitably rack up comments accusing the original poster of “hiding” something, or of working for the government. Today’s landscape of Antarctic conspiracies is a tangled web — comprising everything from AI-generated Lovecraftian images purporting to be from turn-of-the-century expeditions, Nazis and UFOs, global warming denial, and flat-earthery. It’s a locus of conspiratorial thinking from all corners of the political compass, all converging, like lines of longitude, on the ice.

Abraham Ortelius’ 01570 map. Present-day Antarctica appears as Terra Australis Nondum Cognita at the bottom (“the southern land not yet known”).

These sentiments might seem strange, but they're just the latest in a long history of projecting fantasies onto the southern continent. While the Arctic, thanks to its relative proximity to seafaring civilizations, was explored beginning in the Age of Discovery in the 01500s, the terra australis incognito at the bottom of the earth remained mysterious for far longer. The circumnavigations of Captain Cook in the 01770s proved that the area was frozen and uninhabitable, and fringed by seemingly impenetrable pack-ice. The reports that he brought back probably inspired Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner (01798), which launched tropes of the frigid Antarctic into the wider cultural consciousness.

The HMS Endurance trapped in pack-ice during the Shackleton Expedition, February 01915. Photograph by Frank Hurley.

The southern continent itself was not observed until the 01820s, when adventurous whaling captains spotted it and added it to their charts. The simultaneous voyages of Ross (Britain), D’Urville (France), and Wilkes (USA) in 01839 added much to the world’s stock of knowledge of the Antarctic, but after that, investigation did not resume for over 50 years. When the North’s mysteries ceased to hold appeal, the world’s attention turned south to the Antarctic in the 01890s. Suddenly the region seemed to hold immense promise for scientific investigation, the claiming of new territories, and perhaps even the exploitation of mineral resources. The ensuing openly imperial Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration segued into the slightly more covert geopolitical jockeying of the mid-20th century. This reached a fever pitch with the International Geophysical Year of 01957-58, resulting in the Antarctic Treaty of 01959, which officially demilitarized the continent and set it aside as the exclusive preserve of scientific activity.

Blizzard at Cape Denison, Antarctica, 01912. Photograph by Frank Hurley. 

Many of the favored points for conspiracists have to do with government and military operations during this Cold War era. Neff points out the importance of the military presence on Antarctica, specifically the US military: “Their ability to operate their logistical capabilities are what give us the greatest scientific capability in Antarctica of basically any country.”

Union Glacier, Antarctica. Photograph by Christopher Michel.

Despite Antarctica being “the continent of science,” with all military operations being banned since the Antarctic Treaty of 01959, the ongoing game of international geopolitics forms the underlying purpose of activity in the region. While military activity qua activity is verboten, it is the planes and personnel of various militaries which provide the structural capacity for people to live and work there.

Sara Wheeler, in her transformational Antarctic travel book Terra Incognita (01996), succinctly defines that paradox: “Collective consciousness must believe in the deification of science on the ice, otherwise it would have to admit that the reason for each nation’s presence in Antarctica is political, not scientific.”

Photograph by Christopher Michel.

That isn’t to say the vital climatic science done on Antarctica is in any way false or tainted. Scientists like Neff just want to be transparent about how it is they get to do the things they do, and go to the places they go. “It’s so hard to access these places, and the best way to get to them from a science perspective is through organized government programs,” he says. The mantling of the truth, though, is something that perhaps the conspiracists can sense, but are unable to understand or articulate, and so seek explanation in the outlandish. So the communal cooperative fantasy fails, and through the cracks come the crackpots.

A great deal of Antarctic theories, whether their proponents are aware of it or not, have roots in the original polar conspiracy of John Cleve Symmes Jr. Symmes was a US Army officer from Cincinnati who devoted his life to promoting his theory of the “hollow earth.” His claims changed over time, but the central thrust of the idea was that the earth was a hollow shell 800 miles thick, with thousand-mile-wide openings at both of the poles, through which a fertile interior could be accessed by intrepid explorers. In the late 01810s he confined his ideas to privately printed circulars and pamphlets, but by 01820 had begun lecturing around the country. He became somewhat well known, with his theories gaining traction after publication in outlets like the National Intelligencer; and it was his disciple Joshua Reynolds who helped drum up government support to launch the Wilkes Exploring Expedition of 01839, America’s first official venture to Antarctica.

The presence of Symmes’s theories in the public consciousness is visible in Edgar Allan Poe’s novella The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (01838), in which the titular character is carried in an open boat below the Antarctic Circle to a tropical land populated by dark-skinned subhumans, and thence to a frigid whirlpool at the North Pole, seemingly leading to some kind of mysterious interior space, inhabited by a giant shrouded figure: “And the hue of the skin of the figure was of the perfect whiteness of the snow.”

The desire for polar and Antarctic space to be indeterminate and undiscovered, for something beyond human understanding to be hiding underneath or within the ice, is a common underlying feature to Antarctic conspiracies.

Mount Vinson, Antarctica. Photograph by Christopher Michel.

In the mid-20th century, after the fervor of the Heroic Age of Shackleton and Scott died down, and the old school of isolated cross-continental man-hauling through ice and wind had been made obsolete by motors, planes, and radios, it was the Antarctic flights of Richard Byrd that captured the world’s imagination. Byrd, a decorated officer in the US Navy, was a pioneer of early flight. He claimed to be the first person to fly over the North Pole in 01926 (though that claim has since been disputed, thanks to evidence belatedly discovered in Byrd’s diary) and led five separate expeditions to the Antarctic from the 01920s through the 01950s. While the first two of these expeditions were independent, the latter three were conducted by the US government. Operation Highjump, the 01946-7 expedition led by Byrd, established a research base on the Ross Ice Shelf known as Little America IV; and Operation Deep Freeze of the 01950s under his direction was a massive operation which saw the first permanent American bases being constructed at McMurdo and the South Pole by Navy Seabees.

An aerologist with the Byrd Antarctic Expedition barely escapes a fall into the sea after the collapse of the outer edge of an ice shelf, 01929. Photograph courtesy of the U.S. National Archives.

These expeditions, and Byrd himself, form the nucleus of a galaxy of conspiracies. The comments section of a newsreel video about Byrd’s explorations are filled to the brim with assertions about what he “really” saw down there. In the Ancient Aliens segment about Byrd’s “discoveries,” one common version of the tale is described, ostensibly recorded in a recently-recovered “lost diary.” Byrd, on his flight over the continent, enters a fertile hollow earth and meets a race of UFO-flying inhabitants who express disappointment in humanity’s recourse to nuclear power. Alternatively: he met and fought with Nazi-piloted flying saucers, which is why Operation Highjump necessitated such a large expeditionary force being brought back to Antarctica.

Nazis in Antarctica? Well, there’s a kernel of truth there. In 01939, the Third Reich sent an expedition to explore and claim part of Antarctica. The Schwabenland was equipped with planes, which dropped thousands and thousands of iron swastikas over the ice as they surveyed — none of which have ever been recovered.

A German map of Antarctica showing the Nazi territorial claim of New Schwabenland, 01941.

The claim, in the remote sector of Dronning Maud Land already claimed by the Norwegians, was abandoned by the end of the war, but the concept of a Nazi base in the Antarctic lived on, messily pleated into the greater world of Antarctic conspiracy. Uncountable variations on the “Antarctic Nazis” myth have proliferated, including many versions in which Hitler and other senior Nazis did not die but sought shelter at an underground Antarctic base in New Schwabenland, and others that incorporate advanced Nazi technology in the form of UFOs and weapons.

On one of Neff’s TikToks, a commenter pleads: “The earth is hallow [sic], there’s entrances at the north and south pole where it suddenly gets warmer. if you can prove me wrong and go to the south pole could you try? i’ve been heavily convinced it’s hallow and it drives me crazy man [...]”

Being reduced to seeking confirmation of one’s conspiracy in the comments of a scientist is unfortunate. But it is also an example of how intoxicating the otherworldly potential of Antarctica is.

Union Glacier, Antarctica. Photograph by Christopher Michel.

It may not be the location of the entrance to a hollow earth, but it is, in fact, hallow(ed). The only continent with no history of human habitation, the vast ice fields of Antarctica have formed a blank slate onto which humanity can project itself: all of itself, from the heroic, imperial superego to the conspiratorial id. It has attracted pilgrims and truth-seekers, scientists and artists, writers and soldiers.

Detail of Urbano Monte’s 01587 planisphere, featuring a giant merman off the coast of Venezuela. Image courtesy of the David Rumsey Map Center.

Mapmakers of the early modern period placed monsters in the unknown corners of their charts: hic sunt dragones (“here be dragons”). The beasts were pushed further and further to the margins of the mappa mundi as the globe was explored, and eventually off the maps altogether, but the impulse to assign familiar, fire-breathing forms of danger and mystery to what would otherwise be unforgiving, cold, quiet places remain. The heated excitement of Antarctic conspiracies are the dragons of today.

[Read: Ahmed Kabil’s 02018 Long Now Ideas essay on early modern maps and the tendency for mapmakers to imagine monsters in uncharted regions]

Polar scholar Hester Blum, in her book The News At The Ends Of The Earth (02019), suggests that John Cleves Symmes’ conception of the hole at the bottom of the earth, the “polar verge,” with its five concentric spheres inside folding in on each other like a planetary Russian doll, is a fantasy about climactic extremities: a dream of impossible warmth and life where one would expect mundane cold and death.

Union Glacier, Antarctica. Photograph by Christopher Michel.

So too, then, might be the fantasy of Byrd’s Symmesian discoveries, and the crystal cities and advanced beings inside the earth; or, as Joe Rogan associate Sam Tripoli frames it on an episode of Rogan’s popular podcast, “some time-traveling Nazi shit” involving a worldwide “spiritual war” centering on New Schwabenland. As the cultural geographer Denis Cosgrove puts it in Apollo's Eye (02001), “there seems to be an unwillingness to contemplate these global regions without anxiety.” In the face of endless reports of the Earth’s climactic demise issuing from Antarctic research, many might find it easier to believe that the official line of doom and gloom disguises awesome and awful spectacles of aliens, Nazis, and denizens of a hollow (or flat) earth.

Union Glacier, Antarctica. Photograph by Christopher Michel.

And let’s not forget that Antarctica is the planet’s most concentrated record of deep time. It is, as many scholars have noted, an archive in and of itself, stretching back eons, documenting changes to Earth’s atmosphere going back long past the last ice age. Human activity on the continent constitutes barely the smallest sliver of that time — and only on the fringes of the coasts and at a few minimal inland stations. The vastness of Antarctica is untouched and implacable; difficult to comprehend from a limited human perspective. Like the Shoggoths and Old Ones which inhabit the ancient, abandoned Antarctic of Lovecraft’s imagination in “At The Mountains of Madness,” the continent itself is apt to induce a sort of insanity, even for those who are not physically present.

Union Glacier, Antarctica. Photograph by Christopher Michel.

But of course, there are people at this moment trying to comprehend it more fully and objectively. Way out on the ice, at the remote Dome C location on the Antarctic Plateau, scientists are beginning a project to retrieve ice core samples that are over one million years old. It will take them five years to retrieve the oldest samples which lie miles down, against the bedrock of the continent, but scientists will begin to analyze samples right away, seeking evidence of atmospheric shifts in the distant past, which can then be used to predict those that are coming in the near future.

Neff, and other environmental scientists and educators, were recruited by TikTok during the pandemic to make educational content for the platform. He sees the broad channels afforded by social media as a vital tool for environmental awareness. “We’re trying to share useful information, to keep people's baseline understanding of climate change up, rather than trying to save the people who have just been terribly misled,” he says. He is tentatively excited about the possibilities for Starlink and other new connectivity technologies to help communicate the realities of the Antarctic to the public.

But as climate scientists and communicators know all too well, just because evidence is provided doesn’t mean people will believe it. The inextricability of Antarctic history and military history is always going to induce skepticism amongst those already primed to distrust the establishment. There will always be people who dream at a distance of a “polar verge” and the secrets lurking beyond it.

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