A bleak uninhabitable tract of Antarctic mountains and glaciers was named in honour of the Queen yesterday in a diamond jubilee gift to the monarch.
It also marked the centenary of Robert Falcon Scott’s death during his ill-fated attempt to lead the first expedition to the South Pole.
Most of the area is far from the more hospitable parts of the continent home to the penguins and elephant seals photographed by adventurous tourists. It is so remote that most of it was first photographed from the air in the mid-1950s after the Queen’s reign had begun.
And although it is the height of summer in the southern hemisphere, temperatures struggled yesterday to reach -20C in the newly-named Queen Elizabeth Land.
Her new domain is a 169,000 sq. mile (437,000 sq. km) wedge-shaped piece of land that comes to a point at the South Pole.
The landlocked territory – twice the size of the United Kingdom – is dominated by the Pensacola mountain range and glaciers which drain to a vast ice shelf.
So desolate is the area that the nearest research scientists from the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) live some 450 miles (725km) away. A spokeswoman for the BAS, which maintains three bases, said the area, which is virtually devoid of any flora, was “pretty grim in terms of being cold”.
She said: “It’s very high altitude so would be a great deal colder than the coast so you wouldn't get penguins. It’s very mountainous and cold.”
The Government’s move was not without precedent. A section of eastern Antarctica discovered in 1931 was named Princess Elizabeth Land after the future Queen when she was five years old. And a mountain range was christened the Princess Royal Range six years ago in tribute to the Queen’s daughter.
Britain was the first country to stake a claim on the continent when in 1908 – four years before the Scott expedition - it extended its territorial claim over the nearby Falklands Islands southwards.
It is among seven nations – also numbering New Zealand, France, Norway, Australia, Chile and Argentina - that take responsibility for sections of the continent.
Queen Elizabeth Land represents about one-third of the area of the British Antarctic Territory, which was created in 1962 and is one of the UK’s 14 remaining overseas possessions. Its main sources of income are tax from research scientists and the sale of postage stamps.
William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, said: “This is a fitting tribute at the end of Her Majesty’s diamond jubilee year.”
He added: “To be able to recognise the UK's commitment to Antarctica permanent association with Her Majesty is a great honour.”
But pragmatic international politics could also be a factor behind the move, which comes as tensions soar between Britain and Argentina over the Falklands.
Argentina does not recognise UK sovereignty of the British Antarctic Territory and has a counter-claim which overlaps British territory. All claims on the continent have been put on hold since an international treaty in 1959.
Klaus Dodds, professor of geopolitics at Royal Holloway, London, said: “The territory in question is highly contested. It is counter-claimed by Argentina and Chile and this latest naming exercise is, I think, a calculated move to reinforce UK interests.
“It would not be at all surprising if Argentine and Chilean maps of the Antarctic Peninsula region never acknowledged the existence of Queen Elizabeth Land.”
The Foreign Office said the new name would now be used on all British maps. It said that it would be left to other countries to decide whether to recognise it.
Queen Elizabeth Land: A frozen jewel
Seen from some imaginary point above the South Pole, Antarctica’s political geography resembles a frozen pizza. And, as practised colonisers, the British laid claim to the prime slice. The British Antarctic Territory (disputed by both Argentina and Chile) includes all of the Antarctic Peninsula, the finger of land that wiggles towards South America. Almost every visitor to the world’s driest, coldest and windiest continent makes landfall here.
The main sights during Antarctic expeditions are ice and ocean, frequently obscured by blizzards or fog – just two of the perennial maritime hazards. Many tourists do not even cross the Antarctic Circle before retreating for the relative comforts of Tierra del Fuego.
The newly named Queen Elizabeth Land comprises the thin end of the pizza slice, tapering from the frozen shore of the Weddell Sea to a wickedly cold point at the South Pole itself. The first English-language report from here, in 1912, concluded: “Great God! This is an awful place.” The author, Captain Robert Scott, added: “The cold is intense, minus 40 degrees at midday.” Even Balmoral doesn’t get that bad.
Queen Elizabeth Land is the bitter end of Earth. All the colour has been squeezed from the land and sky, the spectrum reduced to shades of grey. Yet a century on from Scott’s fatal expedition, Antarctica has become the ultimate tourism trophy – not least because this is the closest most of us could ever get to visiting an alien planet.