It is the least visited and least populated continent in the world. On the best day, it is extremely difficult to access it. And yet, the attraction of the unknown and the desire to trample all continents underfoot encouraged travelers to try their luck as far as the South Pole.
Yet for obsessive catalogers of the world, Antarctica is difficult to classify. It’s not a country, so can you cross it off a to-do list? Who controls it? If it had a capital, where would it be? What would be the mother tongue?
A national flag for a place without a nation
These are among the questions Evan Townsend asked himself when he signed up for the first of two stays at McMurdo Station, the US base in Antarctica.
Townsend, an elementary school teacher in Boston, knew he had a strict baggage limit when he traveled to Antarctica to work as a support staff member – everyone is limited to 85 pounds, he says , which should include clothing, toiletries, medication, anything they might want or need during their stay.
One day, Townsend and a few colleagues pulled out the pride flag and took pictures of themselves to post on social media. The photos ended up becoming an international story, with many media claiming the outing was the first-ever Antarctic Pride Parade.
“That’s when I realized the power of flags,” Townsend says. “On the one hand, I am completely isolated at the end of the Earth. And on the other, I am part of this global community.”
The Townsend “True South” flag designed to represent Antarctica
Courtesy of Evan Townsend / True South
Although he had no design background, Townsend identified himself as a longtime “flag nerd” and began to play with the idea of creating a flag to represent Antarctica.
“I wanted it to be a neutral flag for sure,” Townsend says. “It’s a distinct design, it’s a distinct color, to make sure it’s not affiliated with any particular group or nationality. I wanted it to be something that had a lot of symbolism, but it was was simple enough that people could apply their own perception of Antarctica and their own understanding of the continent to the flag. “
Swedish nurse Johanna Davidsson didn’t go to the South Pole in an attempt to break a world record, but she walked away with one anyway.
The name of the flag project, True South, also has its own meaning.
“’True south’ literally means the direction to the geographic south pole, as opposed to magnetic south that would lead to the magnetic south pole,” Townsend explains. “it is meant to represent the shared goals and values by which the Antarctic community can orient itself.”
And Townsend has no plans to trademark or copyright the design of the flag because he believes it should belong to the whole world.
“The best flags are flags that derive their meaning and power from the people who wear them,” he adds.
Who’s in charge here, anyway?
Townsend is just one of the many people around the world who are fascinated by Antarctica, even though they are never able to visit and see the place for themselves.
So what is it in the southernmost continent that continues to draw people in?
In a world more interconnected than ever, Antarctica remains one of the few places most people know nothing about.
The only permanent facilities are a handful of science stations, which employ only scientists and their support staff – a term including anyone from chefs and maintenance workers to electricians and airport managers.
It is common for people to be multitasking. Townsend worked in food service, as a bartender, and as a craft room manager during his tenure. At its peak, the number of human residents of Antarctica was around 10,000.
Among the points they agreed on was that Antarctica should “be used for peaceful purposes only” and that science would be at the forefront of any development or establishment there. Military personnel are allowed to be there, but only in support roles.
Although few people live there, the extent of Antarctica’s influence is immense. Climate change has made the continent shrink. And despite the existence of the treaty, global politics have changed and powerful new players – namely China – have emerged in Antarctica.
The True South flag flies alongside the flags of the 12 original Antarctic Treaty signatories at the ceremonial South Pole.
Courtesy of Lisa Minelli / True South
Klaus Dodds, professor of geopolitics at the University of London, is the author of several books on the polar regions, most recently “The Arctic: A Very Short Introduction”, co-authored with Jamie Woodward.
“Things keep being taken from Antarctica. Information, ice, resources like seals, whales and fish,” he says. “The fragility of Antarctica, I think, represents the fragility of the rest of the world.”
While climate change is the biggest influence on Antarctica, there is another major factor that will only increase as the pandemic recedes: tourism.
The future of the seventh continent
Currently, the United States is the main source of tourism in Antarctica, but China is quickly rising to second place and Dodds believes it will be at the top of the list in a decade.
Just as countries vie for power with military bases and political maneuvers, Antarctica has become another site for their rivalries – and fears – to play out.
“No one can answer the question (of) who owns Antarctica,” says Dodds.
“I think Antarctica represents, in essence, not only the idealism that the treaty represents, but it also represents the supreme and contradictory nature of humanity in general. So for all the things we want to celebrate in Antarctica , there is also the ugliness of humanity. “
He points to some major successes: Antarctica was the first continent to be completely free of nuclear weapons. He is also demilitarized.
Another example of the continent’s potential for beauty and unity? The True South flag, which Dodds admires.
“(It’s) a well-meaning reminder that Antarctica is a wonder. Antarctica should represent the best of us all.”