Ten Pioneering Women of Antarctica and the Places Named for Them

These coves, peaks, glaciers and other landmarks honor female explorers and scientists who have contributed to our understanding of the continent

women_antarctic1_h.jpeg
Eileen McSaveney (left) and Terry Tickhill (right) use a hand augur to drill Lake Vanda, Wright Valley, Antarctica, during the 1969-1970 field season. Water collected during this effort was used to date the lake. Lois Jones via National Science Foundation

Men had been exploring Antarctica for over a century when the first woman, Norwegian Ingrid Christensen, stepped foot on the continent’s mainland in 1937. In fact, although women were allowed to work offshore, most women were banned from working on Antarctic land until the 1970s and ‘80s. “Many of the women directly involved with Antarctica in the early 20th century were the wives of explorers,” says Jennifer Fought, a geologist aboard the luxury-expedition cruise ship, Scenic Eclipse. “Like Kathleen Scott, who raised money for her husband Captain Robert Scott’s race to the South Pole,” she says, though was still barred from visiting the continent herself due to such reasons as it being too harsh a climate for females, and the inability of women to handle crisis situations. In fact, as an American woman, I wouldn’t have been allowed to freely work on Antarctica until 1969, when the U.S. Navy lifted its ban on transporting women to the Great White Continent.

Thankfully, in the 53 years since, both American women and females from all around the globe have been more than making up for lost time, blazing trails across Antarctica and achieving amazing feats. In 1993, American explorer Ann Bancroft and her all-female team became the first women to reach the South Pole—tucked well within the Antarctic continent—on skis. In 2011, adventurer Barbara Hillary was the first African American woman to stand on the South Pole. And in 2012, British pioneer Felicity Aston became both the first person to ski solo across Antarctica using nothing but muscle power, as well as the first woman to cross the entire Antarctic land-mass alone.

There are also the many scientific breakthroughs made by women in the Antarctic, from discovering a series of active subglacial lakes to initiating the use of autonomous ocean gliders to take ocean measurements in tough-to-reach waters.

Now, Antarctica’s geologic features are starting to bear their names as well. Here are 10 prominent landmarks in Antarctica, and the pioneering women they are named for:

Fricker Ice Piedmont

This seven-and-a-half-mile strip of low-lying coastal land, covered in ice and backed by mountains, along the east side of Antarctica's Adelaide Island, is named for American Helen Amanda Fricker, a glaciologist and professor at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, in San Diego, California.

Fricker uses satellite data to study the evolution of Antarctica’s ice loss, including the melting of basal ice (basically, the bottom layers of ice sheets, glaciers and ice caps), and ways it contributes to rising sea levels and climate change.

Using data from NASA's Ice, Cloud and Land Elevation Satellite (ICESat), launched in 2003, Fricker also discovered a system of active subglacial lakes under the continent’s ice streams. By 2009, she and her colleagues had detected at least 124 such lakes throughout Antarctica (as of 2019, there were at least 400 of them known to exist). These include Lake Whillans, a body of water teeming with microbes that sits 2,600 feet below the surface of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet.

In 2010, Fricker won the Martha Muse Prize for Science and Policy (now the Tinker-Muse), a prestigious monetary award recognizing the contributions of an individual whose work promotes better understanding and preservation of Antarctica for future generations.

Klenova Peak

One of the founders of Russian marine science, geologist Maria Klenova (1898-1976) earned the nickname the “Mother of Marine Geology” for her work, which included the analyses of Antarctica’s seabed geology through the use of oceanographic measurements. After being turned away from joining several whaling vessels to the continent because of her gender, Klenova took part in the First Soviet Antarctic Expedition in 1955–57. She became the first woman scientist ever to carry out work in Antarctica—despite her male colleagues collecting many of the data samples that she utilized, since women were largely restricted from leaving the ship.

Klenova also helped map the first Soviet Antarctic Atlas, a four-volume tome created by navigating previously uncharted areas of the Antarctic coast, in 1956. The sharp-rising, 7,546-foot-tall Klenova Peak, part of the continent’s Sentinel mountain range, pays homage to this determined and outspoken scientist.

Bernasconi Cove

Located on the Jason Peninsula—a stretch of mostly snow-covered summits jutting east from the Antarctic Peninsula and into the Weddell Sea—is Bernasconi Cove, named for the late Argentine marine biologist Irene Bernasconi. During her active career (1924 to 1984), Bernasconi was one of Argentina’s top echinoderm specialists, particularly known for her studies of marine invertebrates such as starfish, sea urchins and brittle stars. Bernasconi was also one of four female scientists who traveled to Antarctica in late 1968 and spent two-and-a-half months at Melchior Base on Gamma Island, off the northwestern coast of the Antarctic Peninsula, collecting deep-sea samples of water, mud, flora and fauna, including over 2,000 specimens of echinoderms. They were the first Argentine female scientists to carry out fieldwork on the continent.

The three other female scientists, all who also have Antarctic geological features bearing their names, are Maria Adela Caría (Cape Caría), a bacteriologist; Elena Martínez Fontes (Cape Fontes), a specialist in marine invertebrates; and Carmen Pujals (Pujals Cove), a renowned specialist in phycology, the study of algae.

Jones Terrace

In 1969, geochemist Lois M. Jones (1934 – 2000) led the first all-female research team from the U.S. to work in Antarctica. A huge feat, as the U.S. Navy, which was in charge of Antarctic field operations, still saw the continent as a place reserved for men.

That same year, these four women from the Ohio State University also became the first of their gender to reach the South Pole. Jones and her team studied chemical weathering in the McMurdo Dry Valleys, one of the few ice-free areas of Antarctica. Through chemical analyses of rocks that they’d spend days collecting and hauling back to their camp, Jones and her team unraveled the many geochemical characteristics of the valley’s ice-covered lakes, and utilized chemistry’s tools and principles to explain that the dry valley climates were responsible for the lakes’ mineral differentiations.

Today, an ice-free terrace in the Olympus Mountain Range in eastern Antarctica’s Victoria Land, which rises from 2,600 feet to a summit of over 3,300 feet, bears Jones’ name.

Bradshaw Peak

Rising upwards of 5,380 feet on the southwest side of McLay Glacier in Antarctica’s Churchill Mountains, Bradshaw Peak honors British-born New Zealander Margaret Bradshaw, a geologist from the University of Canterbury. Bradshaw first traveled to Antarctica from 1975 to 1976 to collect specimens for the Canterbury Museum, where she was a curator. In 1979, she became the first woman to lead a field party deep into the Antarctic, landing at the remote Ohio Range—a 30-mile-long mountain range that is part of the continent’s enormous Transantarctic Mountains.

Bradshaw has studied the continent’s structure and stratigraphy (layering) of rocks from the Devonian geologic period (between 419.2 million and 358.9 million years ago), and was the first person to record fish fossils found in the natural exposures of Antarctica’s Cook Mountains during the 1988-1989 field season.

She served as president of the New Zealand Antarctic Society from 1993 until 2003, and is also the only New Zealand woman to be awarded the Queen's Polar Medal (1993), a medal awarded to individuals who have made outstanding achievements in the field of polar research.

Tilav Cirque

Located on the northwest side of McLean Buttress in eastern Antarctica’s Victoria Land is Tilav Cirque, a glacier-carved, amphitheater-like depression named for pioneering Turkish astrophysicist Serap Z. Tilav.

Tilav is based at the University of Delaware’s Bartol Research Institute, part of the school’s physics and astronomy department, though she spent multiple seasons on the Antarctic continent as a member of the United States Antarctic Program. Stationed at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, she participated in the deployment of 670 light sensors that, once melted into the South Pole ice, used subatomic particles known as neutrinos to map the universe. Her work was an essential part of the Antarctic Muon and Neutrino Detector Array (AMANDA) project, which operated from 1996 until 2005, and is now a part of its successor, the IceCube Neutrino Observatory—home to the largest neutrino telescope in the world.

Mount Fiennes

Lady Virginia “Ginny” Twisleton-Wykeham-Fiennes (1947-2004) was both an adventurer and explorer, not to mention a polar radio operator. In fact, Fiennes established and maintained 80-foot-tall radio masts in both the Arctic and Antarctic, often battling strong winds and in temperatures that could drop to 58-degrees-below Fahrenheit. Fiennes is responsible for conceiving, planning and fundraising for the legendary Transglobe Expedition, a 35,000-mile circumnavigation of Earth that crossed both Antarctica and the Arctic Ocean. Fiennes’ husband, British adventurer Sir Ranulph Fiennes, led this three-year expedition from 1979 to 1982.

In 1985, Fiennes became the first female invited to join the Antarctic Club, a British supper club founded in 1929 and open to individuals who have spent extended time in the Antarctic region and have a vested interest in Antarctic affairs. In 1987, she became the first-ever woman recipient of the Queen’s Polar Medal.

The 8,202-foot-high Mount Fiennes, located on Antarctica's largest island—Alexander Island—is named for this intrepid spirit.

Francis Peak

Dame Jane Francis is the first (and current) female director of the British Antarctic Survey, the national polar research institute of the United Kingdom.

As both a palaeobotanist and palaeoclimatologist specializing in the study of fossil plants, Francis’ collection of fossils on Seymour Island, near the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula, helped conclude in a 2021 paper that Antarctica’s abundant plant fossils indicate that the continent once had a much warmer climate than it currently does.

The British scientist’s services to U.K. polar science and diplomacy earned her the title of “Dame Commander of the Most Distinguished Order of Saint Michael and Saint George” (DCMG) in 2017, and Francis is the fourth woman in history (and the third one mentioned here) to receive the Queen’s Polar Medal. A 3,727-foot-tall peak on Antarctica’s Adelaide Island is named in her honor.

Heywood Glacier

British Antarctic oceanographer Karen Heywood has led six oceanographic research cruises (cruises that study the ocean in various ways) to Antarctica over the last 25-plus years. A professor of physical oceanography at Engand’s University of East Anglia, she’s a pioneer in the use of autonomous ocean gliders, a.k.a. unmanned underwater robots. These gliders can take below-the-sea measurements in spots that are often too difficult to reach, all in an effort to examine and interpret ocean-ice interaction and how it relates to the overall climate.

Heywood’s innovative work has earned her a namesake glacier, measuring 11.1 miles long and 1.8 miles wide, on the southeast side of the Antarctic Peninsula.

Penden Cliffs

In 1979, trailblazing engineer Irene Peden became the first woman to spend an entire winter at the South Pole. She was also the first American female scientist to both live and work in the Antarctic interior, where she used radio waves to study glacial ice sheets. Peden and her team determined how very low frequency (VLF) radio waves spread over long polar distances by measuring pathways in the ice. They also utilized varying radio wave frequencies to measure the thickness of Antarctica’s ice sheets, and to look for structures buried beneath them.

The Penden Cliffs near Antarctica's Garfield Glacier and Marie Byrd Land (MBL), one of Antarctica’s unclaimed regions, are a testament to her labor.