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The poles as planetary places

journal contribution
posted on 2023-05-26, 10:18 authored by Elizabeth LeaneElizabeth Leane, Miles, G
Perhaps more than any other places on Earth, the geographic poles draw their identity from their relationship with outer space. The word pole‚ÄövÑvp itself referred, in its ancient Greek origin, to the axis of a turning cosmos (and later Earth), as well as the points where this axis met a posited celestial sphere. The terrestrial poles ‚Äö- the places where this invisible axis penetrate the planet's surface ‚Äö- have long held particular cultural significance as the meeting points of the cosmic and the mundane. When European exploration towards both poles developed from early modern times, writers imagined these places as extraterrestrial portals: routes to the interior of the Earth, channels to an unseen sister planets, shortcuts to other planetary poles. Even with the advent of land-based exploring parties to both poles in the early twentieth centuries, planetary bodies remained central to place identity, with the movement of the sun, rather than any terrestrial feature, providing the best means of proving one's arrival at these socalled last places on Earth.‚ÄövÑvp More recently, large-scale cosmological experiments such as those enabled by the South Pole Telescope and the IceCube neutrino detector address questions about the nature of matter and the origin of the universe, providing insight into the events and forces that ultimately set the planet spinning. At the same time, the Anthropocene has brought a new dimension to the poles' relationship with outer space, with recent research confirming that human activity is shifting the Earth's axis ‚Äö- and thus the position of the celestial poles ‚Äö- through its contribution to the global displacement of water and ice. In this article, we argue for the usefulness of considering Earth's geographic poles, and particularly the South Pole, as planetary places‚ÄövÑvp ‚Äö- that is, specific, storied locations on Earth's surface that are meaningful primarily in an (inter)planetary context. We begin by demythologising the geographic poles as well-defined points, looking not only to definitional complexities but also to other‚ÄövÑvp poles, Earthly and unearthly. We then suggest ways in which the poles have enabled certain kinds of thinking about the planet in relation to the human. Through an entangled natural and cultural history, we reveal the South Pole as a place both physically and imaginatively inseparable from Earth's planetary spatiality.


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The Polar Journal



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