Bouvetøya: The Last Place on Earth

This article is part of the Mountain Life Isolation Reading List

Introducing our Curated COVID-19 Isolation reading list. Editors from each of our publications have gone through and compiled a list of pieces from past issues of Mountain Life for you to enjoy, and we’re excited to share them with you. Sit back and relax, because we might be in this for the long haul. But most importantly, let’s not forget to do this together.

 

words :: Leslie Anthony illustration:: Dave Barnes

Grab a set of pointed dividers—the kind nautical route-plotters use—and a 1:40,000,000 map of the world (about a metre across—the scale of most globes). Implant one end at precisely 54°26’S, 3°24’E, set the distance between points to 1,600 km on your map, and trace a circle. If your dividers have a particularly fine point, you’ll notice you’ve impaled a tiny piece of land, no more than a pinhead at this scale, and that within the circle you’ve prescribed—8,148,103 km2 of ocean, or 80 per cent of Europe—not a single additional piece of land occurs. With South Africa 2,500 km to the northeast and the nearest oceanic islands some 1,800 km removed, the closest terra firma to your circle’s centre is Queen Maud Land in Antarctica, 1,750 km to the south. No other place on Earth, in fact, is as peculiarly isolated as the 50 km2  sub-Antarctic speck known as Bouvet Island.

As the only jurisdiction with no record of introduced flora or fauna, Bouvetøya’s unheralded natural state makes it a genuine Last Place on Earth.

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Wildly remote and wildly inhospitable, Bouvet represents the top of a dormant shield volcano marking the terminus of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, the world’s longest mountain/rift system stretching nearly 10,000 km north to the Arctic Ocean. Having last erupted around 50 bc, thick glacial ice now fills the volcano’s remnant caldera, capping 95 per cent of an island otherwise rimmed by 500-metre basalt cliffs. Ferocious winds, heavy seas, near-constant mist, and a lack of any protected cove make landing on Bouvet risky if not entirely foolhardy. Fittingly and famously, it is also hard to find: discovered in 1739 by Frenchman John-Baptiste Charles Bouvet de Lozier (often considered the earliest polar explorer), it wasn’t seen again until 1820—maybe—and not for lack of looking; on maps and then off of maps, when it did appear its placement varied by hundreds of kilometres, shielding it from such luminary searchers as British mariners James Cook and James Clark Ross.

These days the island, still empty, is a Norwegian protectorate—Bouvetøya. Although landings of any kind are prohibited without permission, it remains sought after by obsessive travellers. Cited as one of only two places unvisited by John Clouse, the Guinness Book of World Records’ erstwhile “most travelled man,” Clouse’s successor to the title, Charles Veley, took 72 days to reach the island before making a sketchy helicopter landing.

In the 2012 documentary Bouvetøya: The Last Place on Earth, Canadian adventurers Jason Rodi and father Bruno journey from their home in Montreal to plant a time capsule on the island’s unclimbed highest point—780 m Olavtoppen. Together the pair had climbed the highest mountain on each of the seven continents and trekked to both North and South Poles. The film now finds them traversing the planet’s roughest ocean to its remotest locale, then scaling a glacier bearing a titanium tube filled with messages of hope for the future—a symbolic journey Jason hopes will inspire humanity to do better. He also hopes his unborn daughter, Alix, will retrieve the capsule in 50 years to find Bouvetøya as free of humanity’s footprint as today. Good luck with that.

“This special journey was for you,” he explains in the film. “I went looking for the end of the world to find a new beginning. A future of your own. You were born in a time of change.”

Illustration :: Dave Barnes

Change is an understatement in the Anthropocene—the aptly named current geological epoch of a human-altered lithosphere whose marquee phenomena include anthropogenic climate change, ocean acidification, habitat loss, the planet’s 6th great extinction episode, and the wildfire-like spread of non-native invasive species. Dodging all of these global guns would be impossible for any place, but immunity from some could confer a unique form of removal, one for which Bouvetøya also qualifies: remoteness, inaccessibility, and an environment hostile to human habitation have meant that less than 100 souls have likely ever stood upon it, the reason it also appears to be the last territory on the planet untouched by invasive species. As the only jurisdiction with no record of introduced flora or fauna, Bouvetøya’s unheralded natural state makes it a genuine Last Place on Earth.

In addition to indigenous seal, penguin and seabird species, there are only the familiar terrestrial occupants of other (now heavily invaded) sub-Antarctic islands: two moss species, three liverworts, 49 lichens, five mites and three springtails—the latter pair being tiny terrestrial arthropods easily carried on wind, rafted on oceanic debris, or taxied around on birds.

The contemporary story of Bouvetøya’s isolation—i.e. non-invasion—is noteworthy for being the only such tale you and I will ever know. This also makes Bouvetøya a critical experiment—the only place where all-out prevention has been enacted prior to any non-human introductions. Infrequent visitation by Norwegian scientists and, increasingly, tour operators requires vacuuming and bleaching of all equipment to ensure no seeds, spores, bacteria, viruses or insects are transported on or off. How long such virtual fortification can last until a wayward propagule of some organism sneaks through, however, is anyone’s guess.

The only way to truly manage the Last Place on Earth, it seems, would be to shield it entirely from humans, and take it off the map again. —ML

 

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