The mountain range that forms the spine of the 900-mile Antarctic Peninsula is one of the most prominent geographical features on the continent and certainly one of the best known, given the many thousands of tourists who travel along the peninsula on cruise ships every year. During my nearly five months at Palmer Station, the peninsular range, as I came to call it, was the most dramatic and visible feature within sight at any given time. Framing the horizon to the west, the range was a saw-toothed line of sheer black rock faces enveloped in ice caps and glaciers. On a clear day, I could stand on top of the Marr Ice Piedmont and follow the progress of the mountain range as it extended in the direction of the South Pole, with 7,000-foot peaks visible 120 miles away.
Given the prominence of the peninsular range, it was only natural that I began asking scientists at the station what the mountains were called. No one seemed to know. I checked the National Geographic map on the wall near the station’s galley, and the map, too, left the name blank. Surely, I thought, when I return home and begin doing research, I would quickly discover the name of such an important geographical feature.
But when I began my looking into the issue, the mystery only deepened, leaving me with the so-far uncontested impression that, nearly two hundred years after the first explorers laid eyes on Antarctica, one of the continent’s largest mountain ranges remains unnamed.
First I checked several maps, and nowhere was there a label for this great uprising of basalt, granite, diorite, and other ancient rock. Then I went straight to the most authoritative source in the United States — the U.S. Board on Geographic Names, a federal body, affiliated with the United States Geological Survey (USGS), that is the ultimate arbiter on official place names in the U.S. and Antarctica.
I e-mailed the board on a Friday and received a response the next day, informing me that “the official name of the feature (mountain range) is Transantarctic Mountains.” But I knew that couldn’t be right — the Transantarctics lay far from the Antarctic Peninsula, to the south and east, and separated West and East Antarctica.
It didn’t take long for the Board on Geographic Names to realize its error, even on a Saturday. Within an hour-and-a-half, Scott Borg, the division director for Antarctic Sciences at the National Science Foundation (NSF), wrote an e-mail to the Board of Geographic Names, which forwarded the note to me. Borg’s note said, “I’m not aware of any single name that applies to the mountain chain that forms the core of the Palmer Peninsula (Antarctic Peninsula).”
Ok. So Fen Montaigne, a lowly writer, discovered in short order that one of the most outstanding geographic features in Antarctica remained unnamed in the 21st century? Still not willing to let go of the topic, I e-mailed Borg and a host of officials at the NSF and USGS who had been copied on our growing e-mail exchange.
“This is no doubt presumptuous of me to suggest to an agency such as the U.S. Board on Geographic Names,” I wrote in the e-mail, “but given the prominence of this range, which runs — as you know — many hundreds of miles down the Antarctic Peninsula, isn’t it time that someone gave it a proper name?”
To that suggestion, I received the following reply from Roger Payne, secretary to Lou Yost, himself the executive secretary of the U.S. Board on Geographic Names.
“If you have a name in mind and feel strongly about that name,” wrote Payne, “you can always propose it by completing an Antarctic Names Proposal Form. It’s not online yet (soon) but can be printed from: http://geonames.usgs.gov/docs/gnistable.pdf The Board’s Advisory Committee on Antarctic Names will evaluate it.”
So there it is. The peninsular range, as I call it in my book, does not have a name, but the U.S. government is perfectly willing to consider one. Perhaps the Argentines or the Chileans, which both claim the Antarctic Peninsula (all territorial claims in Antarctica are in limbo as long as the Antarctic Treaty remains in force), have a name for this massive mountain chain. But the U.S. government does not.
So follow the link above and send in your suggestions.
Personally, I’m partial to the Montaigne Range, named not for the explorer who discovered the range, but for the man who discovered that it has stood there, unlabeled, for nearly 200 years.