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Mapping Antarctica

Antarctica is among the most poorly mapped places on Earth. So how is British Antarctic Survey’s mapping team expanding our knowledge of the world’s last great wilderness, and what can mapping teach us about how the continent is changing?

In the UK, it’s easy to take maps for granted. For the past two centuries, Ordnance Survey has charted every inch of the country, mapping more than 440 million different features of the British landscape. By contrast, in mapping terms huge swathes of Antarctica are more like a black hole than a white continent.

According to Paul Cooper of British Antarctic Survey’s Mapping and Geographic Information Centre (MAGIC): “It wasn’t until 1983 that the first broadly accurate map of Antarctica was produced. That was the first time a map brought together enough information for us to be pretty sure that we’d got all the major features in the right places.”

The reasons why so much of the highest, driest, coldest and windiest continent on Earth remains so poorly mapped are obvious, says head of MAGIC, Dr. Adrian Fox: “Antarctica is truly huge. It’s 58 times the size of Great Britain, so it’s a colossal area to cover. It’s got a relatively short history of exploration and hasn’t had the mapping resources spent on it because it’s an empty mountainous continent that is difficult to work in and is a long way away.”

But these gaps in our knowledge matter. Long acknowledged a superb natural laboratory, Antarctic science has become even more important in an era of rapid climate change. And without accurate maps, both doing and representing science is impossible.

“We produce maps for a variety of purposes — for logistical and operational use, for scientists to use in papers, general purpose maps as an overview for staff and for general sale. There are an increasing number of tourists going South and our maps are very popular,” Paul explains.

Mapping for science

Although MAGIC can produce maps of the quality Ordnance Survey users expect, it has to target limited resources wisely. Its most detailed maps include areas of the Antarctic Peninsula — BAS’s main area of operation — such as Rothera Research Station.

Maps produced by MAGIC
Segment of the Ryder Bay published map showing Rothera Point and Rothera Research Station, with aerial photograph backdrop - this map won a prize in the 2007 British Cartographic Society Stanfords map design competition.
Segment of a published map showing Rothera Point and Rothera Research Station
View more maps

According to Adrian: “This area is heavily travelled so we need the best possible map to allow people to travel safely and plan their science. Based on our own aerial photography and GPS work, this map sets the bar for 1:50,000 or 1:25,000 topographic mapping in Antarctica and won a prize in the 2007 British Cartographic Society map design competition.”

MAGIC also plays a key role supporting BAS scientists in the field. “Our main bread and butter work is using aerial photographs, maps and satellite images to support BAS’s science and logistics programmes — our work helps make them more efficient,” he says.

“For a field party of a geologist and mountaineer going somewhere in the back of beyond, we’d make them a map so they could plan their project, travel safely in the field and then use it to plot their results when they get back. We also gather information to help them with their science. Last season we flew aerial infrared photography, which is fantastic at showing up vegetation, so it will help BAS’s terrestrial biologists chart changes in Antarctic vegetation.”

And because BAS’s operations cover such a large area, MAGIC’s work is also vital for the BAS air unit. “If you transposed BAS’s operational footprint to Europe it would extend east of Moscow and as far south as Turkey. We cover this with twin otter aircraft, operating on piles of fuel drums and landing on skis, so several times a year we produce a map for the air unit marking places that they might visit during the field season — places like fuel depots and automated weather stations — and giving distances, flight times and fuel burn. It’s a classic example of using a map to solve a real operational problem,” Adrian explains.

Mapping as science

But MAGIC’s mapping isn’t only about supporting other BAS scientists. Aided by new technologies such as satellite imagery and other geographic information systems, mapping is producing increasingly innovative and important science in its own right.

Landsat satellite image of part of the Antarctic Peninsula including Pourquoi Pas Island
Landsat satellite image of part of the Antarctic Peninsula including Pourquoi Pas Island

In 2007, after teaming up with NASA and the US Geological Survey, MAGIC unveiled something called the Landsat Image Mosaic of Antarctica (LIMA). Based on over 1000 scenes taken during seven years of satellite observations, LIMA is the most geographically accurate, true-colour satellite photograph ever made of Antarctica.

While stunning to look at, LIMA’s real value lies in its potential to revolutionise science in Antarctica. According to BAS’s Andrew Fleming: “LIMA is a step change — we’ve gone from a continent that didn’t have any continuous mapping to a geometrically-correct dataset, so you’re able to see details that haven’t ever been glimpsed before.”

Thanks to LIMA, scientists at BAS have already produced ground-breaking work mapping emperor penguin colonies. And because it’s the first “time-stamped” overview of the continent, LIMA provides an important baseline for monitoring the impacts of climate change.

New technology such as satellites is also giving BAS’s archive a new lease of scientific life. For MAGIC staff, BAS’s archive of thousands of aerial photographs, surveyors’ notebooks, hydrographic charts and old maps dating back to the 1940s is a unique resource.

As Adrian explains: “The aerial photographs were taken for mapping purposes but we’re now using them to look at how Antarctica has changed. What’s interesting is this recycling of material that was collected for another purpose. It had its original value, which was to make a hydrographic chart, but it has a secondary value, unthought-of at the time, which may be even greater.”

From the BAS Archives — mapping in the 1940s

“One of the pieces of equipment which had been requisitioned in the stores was a survey camera, and a Cirkut No.6 camera was supplied, vintage about 1907. It was in poor condition and two films were spoiled before any results at all were obtained from it. By a constant series of trials and errors and with the expenditure of much profanity and patience, the following observations were gradually made”

- Captain A. Taylor, 1944

“We were able to get our loads down to 450 lbs per sledge. At least 200 lbs of this consisted of survey equipment, rangefinder, theodolite, plane table, survey camera, wireless time signal receiving set and sundry smaller apparatus”

- Lt Cdr James Marr, 1944

Find out more about BAS’s Archives

Team member Alison Cook has used the archive to great effect, making major discoveries about how far and fast glaciers have retreated on the Antarctic Peninsula and the island of South Georgia.

By plotting the position of glacier ice fronts from old aerial photographs and comparing them with satellite images — a task that took her two painstaking years — Alison found 212 of the Peninsula’s 244 marine glaciers have retreated over the past 50 years and that rates of retreat are increasing. “Very little was understood about the glaciers — people didn’t even know how many there were — so this time-series of coastlines will help us to understand recent changes for the first time,” she explains.

Similar research done on South Georgia has further, very practical benefits. Because of the island’s history of whaling and sealing, it has problems with invasive species including rats, which are a major threat to South Georgia’s bird life. Until now, rats have been restricted to particular parts of the island by glacier barriers, but as glaciers retreat they open up new areas to the rodents.

According to Alison: “We looked at which glaciers are retreating and tried to project that into the future to identify those that might retreat enough to open up new areas to rats. This means the government of South Georgia can manage their rat control programme most effectively.”

One of the best jobs in the world

Mapping in action

For all the difficulties of mapping in the Antarctic, for the MAGIC team it’s one of the best jobs in the world. “Antarctica is probably the only place left where you could be making a map of an area for the first time, and that is hugely challenging and exciting,” says Adrian. 

Alison agrees: “The job is so varied, and you get to see vast areas that not many people have seen before. Doing aerial photography is stunning — you get to fly across extraordinary landscapes in the best weather because you need that for the photographs. Surveying is amazing, because it’s climbing mountains and trekking across stunning landscapes which gives us unique opportunities. Some of these peaks have only ever been climbed once or twice before, so we get to do things that are very exciting and which you just can’t do anywhere else, especially not as a job!”

What’s in a name?

From Cape Disappointment and Exasperation Inlet to Delusion Point and Destruction Bay, Antarctic place names evoke a history of hardship. We asked BAS’s mapping team to nominate their favourites.

“The names I always like are ones that depict what it is like there and are unusual. My favourite one is Blow-me-down Bluff, but there are plenty of others, like Dismal Island, Echo Mountain, Gale Ridge and Nothing Passage”

- Alison Cook

“All my own names are taken — there’s an Alexander Island, Paul Rocks, Robin Glacier and several features called Cooper, so they’re not going to call a feature after me! There’s a place in the Transantarctic Mountains called Dot Peak on Cooper Nunatak, and I rather like that because my mother was called Dorothy”

- Paul Cooper

“My favourite place name is Fullastearn Rock”

- Adrian Fox