2008 Blog Archive

Check Back Daily December 15, 2009, South Pole Station –
Serap Tilav

Geographic Names in Antarctica

Since there is no single governing authority and there is no permanent settlement in Antarctica, who should give names to geographic features like mountains, valleys, and glaciers in Antarctica? In principle, anybody can. In fact, this is what was happening until scientists realized that multiple names existed for single features and this was causing serious misunderstandings in their scientific reports.

In 1992, scientists decided to take the matter in hand and the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR) formed a working group to sort out and integrate the databases maintained by different countries in the world. Currently, members from 22 countries are actively involved in Antarctic mapping, compiling all existing place names, and setting guidelines for creating new place names and for the use of existing names. The SCAR Composite Gazetteer of Antarctica is now the official publication where all the Antarctic place names are compiled from the published national gazetteers.

In the United States, a federal body called the U.S. Board on Geographic Names is responsible for the policies and procedures governing the use of names for Antarctic features. As of October 1, 2008, out of 36,177 Antarctic names, 13,090 names were supplied by the USA. Although the major features of Antarctica have been mapped and named, still a vast number of secondary features remain unnamed.

In 1995, I remember receiving an e-mail from the National Science Foundation – Office of Polar Programs asking for nominations of names of scientists who have made outstanding contributions to Antarctic science. I didn’t make much of that e-mail at the time. I was a young postdoc then, working on the AMANDA (Antarctic Muon and Neutrino Detector Array) experiment at UW-Madison and had already made a small discovery about the South Pole ice. Discoveries, no matter how small or big, are always controversial. I didn’t think I had to fight for results which spoke for themselves already.
I left Antarctic science for a while – a bit disappointedly, but Antarctica kept calling me back. I joined the South Pole Cosmic Ray experiment at the Bartol Research Institute at UD and started going to South Pole again in 2001.

It was January 2006, while waiting in Christchurch, New Zealand, for my flight to the South Pole, that there came a surprising e-mail from the director of NSF’s Office of Polar Programs notifying me that an Antarctic feature called the Tilav Cirque had been named after me. Along with the Tilav Cirque, there was the Gaisser Valley, named after my Ph.D. advisor and the principal investigator of the South Pole Cosmic Ray experiment, Thomas K. Gaisser, and the Shulman Peak, named after the South Pole veteran and superb Bartol engineer Leonard M. Shulman.

The legacy of Martin A. Pomerantz, the director of the Bartol Research Institute from 1959–87, continues, I thought. Pomerantz was a true pioneer in Antarctic science, who started cosmic ray studies in McMurdo and South Pole in the 1960s. An ice-covered 2,290-meter-high plateau, called the Pomerantz Tableland, in the Usarp Mountains of Antarctica was named after him in 1969. The astronomical observatory at Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station also was named the Martin A. Pomerantz Observatory (MAPO) in his honor. The first submillimeter astronomy instrument at Pole, EMILIE, was also set up by Pomerantz in collaboration with several French scientists in 1984. The site, five miles east of the station, is still referred to as the Pomerantz Land.


Antarctic map showing the area of the geographical features named after the scientists from the University of Delaware’s Bartol Research Institute. They are all located in Victoria Land.


Landsat satellite image showing the area with respect to McMurdo Station. The region is called the McMurdo Dry Valleys.


Close-up image from the Landsat satellite showing the geographical features with names. All the named features are in the Cruzen Range, Victoria Land. A cirque is a bowl-shaped depression in a mountain, which usually feeds the glaciers below. There are five cirques, one of which is the Tilav Cirque, feeding the Victoria Upper Neve, which is the head of the Victoria glacier. The Gaisser Valley is a 1.5-mile-long mostly ice-free valley, and the Shulman Peak is a peak rising to 1400 meters in the Cruzen Range.