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Naming the un-named

  • Written by  Adrian Fox, Kate Bazely
  • Published in Mapping
Mount Scott reflected in the waters of the Lemaire Channel on the Antarctic Peninsula Mount Scott reflected in the waters of the Lemaire Channel on the Antarctic Peninsula Minden Pictures/Superstock
01 Dec
How do cartographers and explorers come up with new names for locations and features in relatively recently discovered parts of the world? Adrian Fox and Kate Bazeley explore the history of naming Antarctica

Place names are important for precisely and accurately referring to a place. In regions that have a long history of human occupation, almost every place and every feature that needs a name now has one. These names can be rich in meaning, reflecting the complex development of the landscape as the sum of recent human activities, together with echoes of historical events and past environments. But what happens in places such as the Antarctic Peninsula that are more recently discovered, where there has never been a native population, and explorers and cartographers are presented with an ‘unlabelled’ landscape, a geographical blank canvas?

The place names on the Antarctic Peninsula are shorthand for its history. The jigsaw of clusters of related names shows how the geography of the region was slowly pieced together – first by successive exploratory expeditions and later by surveyors and scientists. Many of the names evoke the adventures and hardships of these pioneers.



The South Shetland Islands and northern Antarctic Peninsula were first sighted in 1819 and 1820–21 by William Smith and Edward Bransfield from the Royal Navy ship Williams. They named about 20 major features, including King George Island (after George IV), Smith Island (after Smith), Cornwallis and Clarence islands (after Royal Navy admirals) and Tower and Desolation islands descriptively. These categories of place names – important figures and sponsors, expedition members and descriptive features – set the tone for place-naming in the region ever since.

News of the discoveries of these new lands soon attracted interest from sealers who were operating on South Georgia in the South Atlantic. They subsequently moved south to the Antarctic Peninsula area during the early 1820s and recklessly slaughtered fur seals until the practice became uneconomic through over exploitation.

Although they mainly kept their discoveries to themselves to protect the lucrative trade, there’s a scattering of names from this era after sealing ships (Cora Cove, Esther Harbour, Harmony Cove), ship captains (McFarlane Strait) or the sealers’ origins (Dunbar Islands [Scotland], Greenwich Island [Connecticut], Yankee Harbour). Neck-or-nothing Passage is a treacherous, narrow channel used as a last resort to escape gales in Blythe Bay (Blyth, England) and captures the dangers of navigating stormy waters in small wooden ships.

During the early 20th century, British and Norwegian whalers left a greater legacy of place names, following similar themes of ship names (Neko Harbour, Solstreif Island, Dove Channel), whaling captains and harpoonists – the ‘star strikers’ of the whaling operations, who were usually Norwegian – (Borge Bay, Skontorp Cove, Mikkelsen Harbour) or whaling itself (Factory Cove, Flensing Islands). Some names highlight the perils of chasing whales through uncharted waters with offshore rocks and narrow channels: Neptunes Bellows (the gusty entrance to Whalers Bay, Deception Island), Sewing Machine Needles, Hell Gates.



It wasn’t until the beginning of the so-called Heroic Age of Antarctic exploration that the Antarctic Peninsula began to acquire a more systematic coverage of place names. Starting with Henry Foster’s Royal Navy expedition in 1828–31, successive Belgian, British, French, German and Norwegian national expeditions visited the Antarctic Peninsula, extending south the known geography. They’ve left their mark in the clusters of Belgian, German and French names for topographic features evident on the maps of today.

By the end of the British Graham Land Expedition (1935–38), the northern and western coastline was well understood as far south as Alexander Island (70°S) and many major topographic features had been named. All of these expeditions were ship-borne, which meant that discovery was limited to the coastal zone and mountains and glaciers visible from the sea. Very little was known about the east coast or the interior of the Antarctic Peninsula beyond features seen in the distance by a few tentative dog-sledging journeys and a handful of pioneering aerial-photography flights using small sea-planes carried south by ship. Vast tracts remained unseen, uncharted and un-named.

These expeditions mixed geographical exploration and scientific objectives with nationalistic goals. Consequently, many of the place names from these expeditions refer to politicians, prominent national figures and expedition sponsors, as well as the usual expedition members and descriptive names.



The UK’s territorial claim for the Antarctic Peninsula, the region known as the British Antarctic Territory, is the oldest in Antarctica, dating back to 1908, and covers the region between 20°W and 80°W, extending from the South Pole to 60°S. After the Second World War, the organisation now known as the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) was formed and rapidly expanded activity on the Antarctic Peninsula. Programmes of surveying and mapping, and scientific research systematically explored the largely unvisited and unknown interior and east coast.

This programme of exploration led to a surge in place-naming as whole mountain ranges, prominent peaks, large glaciers, ice-shelves and other topographic features were seen for the first time. In anticipation of this sudden need for new names, the UK Antarctic Place-names Committee (APC) was formed in 1945.

The committee’s aim was to impose some order and forward planning on place names in the British Antarctic Territory. Its objectives were, and still are, to name topographic features so that they can be unambiguously identified for scientific and navigational purposes, and to control place-naming in order to avoid confusion from duplication of names, multiple naming of the same feature, or adoption of confusing or otherwise inappropriate names.

The APC’s names are all listed in a gazetteer and are defined by coordinates and a description. They are also shown on a map, which is important for defining the extent of areal features such as mountain ranges and linear features such as glaciers.

The geographical coordinates for place names from before the era of GPS were taken from maps based on astronomical fixes and sparse topographic surveys and could be inaccurate by hundreds of metres. Now, each coordinate has been checked against modern satellite imagery to improve the accuracy to about that achievable with a navigational GPS. The place names must also be easily available for practical use, so the UK place names are accessible on the web through an online gazetteer and a map that shows the names on a zoomable topographic backdrop.



There are now about 5,000 UK-applied place names in the British Antarctic Territory, ranging from Aagard Glacier to Cape Zumberge. Many of the names – such as Fullastern Rock, Dismal Island, Damocles Point (overhanging ice pinnacles) and Achilles Heel (a smaller peak next to Mount Achilles) – show the stoic wit and dry humour of polar travellers.

The place names can be very evocative of the hardships of long dog-sledge journeys into the unknown and many are probably the result of lamp-lit conversations around the Primus stove in storm-bound tents. Classic examples include Cape Disappointment, Exasperation Inlet and Blow-me-down Bluff. Some names concisely describe the spectacular terrain: The Amphitheatre, Giants Cirque, Dragons Teeth, Black Thumb, Witches Cauldron, Reptile Ridge, The Catwalk, The Needles.

However, it soon became clear that the principles of naming features after expedition members and descriptive naming would quickly become exhausted, and duplicate or confusing names would be difficult to avoid (Snow Hill, Long Island; too many Cooks, MacDonald/McDonald/Macdonald). In response, the APC developed the idea of clustering names into themes. Examples include composers and glaciologists; pioneers of aviation, medicine and photography; characters from the works of authors such as Charles Dickens, Jules Verne and Herman Melville; inventors of useful equipment for polar travel; and characters from Greek mythology.

Perhaps surprisingly – given the dependence upon, and affection for, reliable, well-designed equipment by polar travellers and scientists – there are very few commercial names within the UK gazetteer. Examples include Mount Tucker, Bombardier Glacier (manufacturers of Sno-Cat and skidoo tracked vehicles) and some aircraft manufacturer names, such as Havilland Glacier (the deHavilland Twin Otter is the workhorse of Antarctic aviation).



During the 1950s, the UK played a leading role in the negotiation of the Antarctic Treaty, which was signed in 1959, and which places all territorial claims into abeyance in order to provide for international co-operation and governance of the continent. Since then, numerous other nations have established bases in the Antarctic Peninsula region and undertaken their own topographic mapping and place-naming campaigns.

The South Shetland Islands are one of the most accessible places to maintain an Antarctic Research Station and there are now about 20 stations from 11 countries in this island group. In some places, this has led to multiple naming of the same feature by different countries and confusion that’s difficult to resolve. Many places have three or four names, including some very large, regionally important features such as King George Island, which was charted and named by Britain in 1821, but has been named Isla 25 de Mayo by Argentina (after its national day) and translated as Isla Rey Jorge by Chile.

The UK committee liaises with the naming authorities of other countries active in the region, such as the US Advisory Committee on Antarctic Names, in order to avoid the confusion that arises when places acquire multiple names. The UK place names are also included in the Composite Gazetteer of Antarctica, a continent-wide compilation of place names maintained by the international Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research.



There is a continuing need for place-naming in Antarctica because there are still many un-named geographical features. A key principle of UK place-naming is that the place must need a name for scientific or navigational reasons.

More detailed work in previously visited areas needs more precision in the naming of places, and thanks to improved logistics, evolving scientific requirements and increasing international collaboration, scientists are now working in extremely remote, little-visited areas. Furthermore, the growth of the Antarctic tourism industry, which sees about 35,000 tourists visit per year, is also generating a need for new names.

The UK APC has now existed for more than 65 years and still plays an important role in developing the place names to meet these evolving requirements. The committee advises the government of the British Antarctic Territory and currently has 15 members that represent a range of communities with interest in the region, including the BAS, the Scott Polar Research Institute and the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG), as well as a range of experts from the scientific, heritage, tourism and commercial communities.

Among the names recently approved are a number that recognise prominent people – Queen Elizabeth Land, The Princess Royal Range, Attenborough Strait (after Sir David Attenborough), Lovell Glacier (after the astronomer Sir Bernard Lovell) – as well as thematic names, such as those of polar geomorphologists (Bentley Peak, Clapperton Ridge, Sugden Ridge).



In less than 200 years, the Antarctic Peninsula has gone from a totally unknown, unmapped region with no place names to complete coverage by accurately geo-located satellite imagery and regional-scale maps, and about 5,000 named geographical features.

Antarctica may be remote and unpopulated, but it has a critical role in the global environmental system. As scientists seek to understand this role, they are both venturing into new areas to answer new scientific questions and working in more detail elsewhere. This fieldwork, and the supporting logistics, will always need to refer precisely and unambiguously to places, and there will be a continuing need to name the un-named.

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