Telling Time in Antarctica

“Time is an illusion. Lunchtime doubly so.” —Douglas Adams

I recently re-read E.P. Thompson’s “Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism” (1967), a piece that I had honestly not given much thought since skimming it in a theory seminar in graduate school. In his now classic argument, Thompson posits that our idea of time, as something that corresponds with specific work during specific hours is a lasting legacy of the Industrial Revolution. Where before time might have been understood based on agricultural seasons, liturgical calendars, and task based approximation, the rise of factory labor made everyone pay heed to the clock. In fact, he argues, before industrialization, a clock or a watch would be a luxury possessed by the wealthy rather than a tool in home and office settings.

This piece brought up feelings for me regarding a long standing methodological and theoretical problem that I have had in my own research, one whose trickiness and possible resolvability forced me to put it to one side. That issue regards the many different conceptualizations of time in Antarctica. To put it most basically: how can you come to real conclusions regarding time in a place that for many months of the year, there is no day or there is no night? There is just light and darkness. The simple solution is that, well, in Antarctica, everyone makes sure to bring their watches—one day and night is 24 hours. But it is not that simple.

How many different types of time are used in Antarctica? First, without traditional markers of day and night, time becomes an instrument—a measuring tool for men (and in my research it is always men) to determine when they are. Rather than just saying that Amundsen beat Scott to the South Pole because Amundsen left a flag behind, we can actually say, because of their clocks, that Scott arrived on 17 January 1912 and Amundsen on 14 December 1911—no matter that the sun never set between these two moments.  

Until the invention of GPS, watches and chronometers similarly were the only way to determine where they were. On the ice sheet, or even on the ice shelf, the lack of fixed land points mean that without your clock—without time—you can’t even determine where you are. The dependence on watches and clocks was substantial. Frank Worley credited his successful 1916 navigation of the James Caird for rescue on South Georgia during the famously disastrous Endurance expedition to the good showing of “This English chronometer, and excellent one of Smith’s was the sole survivor, in good going order, of the twenty-four [timepieces] with which we set out in the Endurance.[1] During the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition, the men also used Smith’s watches—ones that mostly didn’t work. This was the source of so much annoyance that when the firm offered to present the men with a gold watch at the conclusion of the expedition, geophysicist Geoffrey Pratt, whose work relied on precise instrumentation, refused the gift.

Besides being a form of instrumentation, a way to fit events in Antarctica into the calendar of human history, as well as a way to determine precision in experiments, and even locate your own position, time has other meanings in Antarctica. One major way that Antarctica is studied is in relation to various scales of geologic time. In this way, many Antarctic scientists also act as historians, using the setting and environment of Antarctic to literally look back in time.

For more than half of the twentieth century, evolving concepts of geological time allowed paleontologists and paleobotantists to use Antarctic fossils to make biogeographical arguments related to continental drift. Most significant, Permian Glossopteris flora fossils, first discovered by Robert Falcon Scott’s South Pole part near the Beardmore Glacier in the Transantarctic Mountains, were used for many years by advocates of continental drift. These, and subsequent fossil collections, continued to serve this purpose through the 1960s. Similarly, starting in the 1950s, geophysicists began using Antarctica as a site for understanding the history of the magnetic field, an understanding of time both distinct from and embedded with that of the paleontologists. Finally, innovations in ice—like core drilling—had made it possible to study geological time on a much shorter scale, as we could peek back into the composition of ice made in the past. Historical study and glaciology even collided during the Norwegian–British–Swedish Antarctic Expedition (1949-1952), when the men used ice made at the time of Napoleon’s rise to power to make their cocktails. Historians might be especially interested in the fact that facilities to store ice cores, which we can now use to look back up to 800,000 years, are called archives.

The Main Archive Freezer at the NSF Ice Core Facility
The Main Archive Freezer at the NSF Ice Core Facility; NSF-ICF.

Last, there is a sense of historical or intellectual time for a historian studying the region, one that is for me the hardest to wrap my head around, since it is metaphysical in nature. Antarctica was discovered in 1820, based on the standard narrative. Yet what constitutes discovery? If one looks at early Modern World maps—those created by big names in historical cartography such as Gerardus Mercator, Piri Reis, Oronce Fine, Abraham Ortelius, and more—you will see Antarctica. It is not quite the right shape, but it is there, present due to Aristotelian ideas of balance and perhaps an idea of human un-exceptionalism: just because we haven’t see it, doesn’t mean it’s not there. Even in 1820, when Edward Bransfield, Nathaniel Palmer, and Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen all allegedly discovered the continent, the continent did not really take shape for another century. Even in the 1950s, we had mapped more of the moon’s surface than a continent comprising of 9% of the world’s landmass.

So when was Antarctica discovered? Was it in the ancient, medieval and Early Modern worlds when it was believed that there must be a “terra australis incognita,” or was this a mystical place entirely separate from Antarctica? Was it in the seventh century, when according to Polynesian oral tradition, navigator Ui-te-Rangiora reached the Ross Sea? Was it in 1773-1774 when James Cook documented large icebergs 100 miles from the coast? Was it indeed in 1820, when three different men at three different moments have legitimate claims for first sighting? Was it in the 1840s, when James Clark Ross circumnavigated it? Was it in 1935, when Lincoln Ellsworth flied across? Was it in the 1950s-1960s, when Seismic soundings revealed the shape of the continent beneath the ice? Was it in the 2000s, when systematic and widespread attempts were made to drill and sample subglacial lakes? With Antarctica, can discovery be rooted in a specific time, or is discovering Antarctica an ongoing project?

I do not really know that I have a resolution to my issues regarding time in Antarctica. I suppose to can engage more meaningfully in studies of time measurement in either non-Western or pre-Modern contexts. But that doesn’t seem to work exactly, as my main issue comes from different ideas of time that exist together. In a field like history, where even the most decentered stories have chronology, perhaps there is little room outside theoretical musings on the nature of time being relative. And perhaps that is the lesson that Antarctica can give to those studying history elsewhere: time, its function, and our understandings of it, are both relative and constructed, and can serve many different purposes overlapping onto each other at once. Under quarantine, we all are experiencing time in different ways. As environmental historians looking into place, we all should consider the ways that place can determine experiences with time.

[1] Frank Arthur Worsley, The Great Antarctic Rescue: Shackleton’s Boat Journey (London, UK: Sphere, 1979), 101.

*Cover Image Credit: Richard Brooke taking sun sight, Mt Newall (10 October, 1958), Antarctica New Zealand Pictorial Collection 1957-1959 Season .