Spot in Antarctica is named after Scripps Oceanography scientist

Scripps Oceanography glaciologist Helen Amanda Fricker has been honored with an Antarctic feature named after her.
Scripps Institution of Oceanography glaciologist Helen Amanda Fricker has been honored with an Antarctic feature named after her.

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the discovery of Antarctica, but that doesn’t mean discoveries aren’t still being made on the icy continent.

For her discovery of subglacial lakes and the use of satellites to study the evolution of ice sheets in Antarctica and Greenland, glaciologist Helen Amanda Fricker of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla is one of 28 scientists newly honored with Antarctic features named for them by the UK Antarctic Place-names Committee. The panel considers proposals and makes recommendations for place names within the British Antarctic Territory.

Adrian Fox, head of the mapping team at the British Antarctic Survey and a member of the place names committee, said, “It is fitting that in the year marking two centuries of exploration and research in Antarctica that we pay testament to those who have devoted their careers to Antarctica and to advance our understanding of the great white continent.”

Fricker was recognized with the naming of the Fricker Ice Piedmont, an almost 7½-mile stretch on the east side of Adelaide Island.

“It’s actually quite beautiful,” Fricker said of her namesake. “It’s bigger than Point Loma, and on the map it might not look like much, but if you were to see it in person you might be taken back by the size and beauty of it.”

The Fricker Ice Piedmont on the east side of Adelaide Island is named after local glaciologist Helen Amanda Fricker.
The Fricker Ice Piedmont on the east side of Adelaide Island in Antarctica is named after Scripps Institution of Oceanography glaciologist Helen Amanda Fricker.

The naming recognition is an unusual honor, she said.

“When I first heard, I thought ‘Why me?’ I’m not crazy about naming landscapes after human beings, and I questioned whether my work merited it, but I have since embraced it,” Fricker said. “We have so much that is named after men, and there are some named after women, but not many. It’s important to see that women have also been recognized and that they, too, are in the field. A friend also pointed out how important this would be for my three daughters to see their mom recognized in this way. And my mom was proud.”

She shares the recognition with two friends and colleagues on the same list of 28 scientists, for whom two bays are named. Seymour Laxon and Katharine Giles died in 2013.

“It was great to see them honored; they were great friends and brilliant scientists,” Fricker said. “They deserve it, and it’s nice that I’m there with them.”

Fricker’s work is on the subglacial lakes that accumulate between the ice and rocks in Antarctica. The study of the lakes has launched several multimillion-dollar expeditions.

“When you discover something like that, you ask yourself ‘How long has that been there?’ It hasn’t just appeared and we are just now seeing it. So we are studying them and their impact on the ice shelves,” she said. “I’ve been involved in two large projects that involve drilling down and putting instruments in the lake to determine where it comes from, the sediment in it, etc.”

While there is still much to learn about the lakes, they are less affected by climate change and therefore the team has the time and — with satellites — the technology to explore them, she said.

“Most things we’ve discovered in Antarctica over the last few decades are things that are happening because of climate change. But the lakes are like a phenomenon not affected by climate change. They are there regardless,” Fricker said. “Antarctica is on average 2.2 kilometers [about 1.4 miles] thick; it insulates itself from climate change. It gets you wondering about other processes we didn’t know about. Satellites have given us a window to observe this system that is otherwise impossible to get information from.” ◆