Thursday, November 16, 2006

The nether arc

My walk along the prime meridian that I described in Walking Zero began at the zero-longitude monument on the chalk cliffs above the English Channel at the town of Peacehaven. You can see a photo of the monument in Gallery. It commemorates the 1884 international conference in Washington that established our global system of longitude and time zones.

When my friend Wallace Kaufman was here a week or two ago, he mentioned that he had visited a monument marking the anti-meridian -- the line of 180 degree longitude -- on the shore of the Arctic Ocean in eastern Siberia. He has now sent me a photo.

As I describe in my book, getting the nations of the world to agree on a common prime meridian was no easy matter. in 1884 there were at least eleven mapping systems in use, with prime meridians based on Greenwich (England), Paris, Rio, St. Petersburg, Rome, Lisbon, Cadiz, Berlin, Tokyo, Copenhagen, and Stockholm. Far and away the most common prime was the one that passed through the Royal Observatory at Greenwich -- the basis for the maps of both Britain and the United States. But the French delegate to the conference vowed, "France will never agree to emblazon on her charts 'degrees west or east of Greenwich'!"

It was to solve the political problem, while recognizing the practical primacy of Greenwich, that Sandford Fleming, the Canadian "prime" mover of the conference, recommended a prime meridian exactly halfway around the world from Greenwich, which passes almost entirely through the watery Pacific Ocean. This was the so-called anti-prime or nether-arc. No Greenwich-based maps would need to be redrawn, but the French would not have to suffer the indignity of a "Greenwich prime."

As it turned out, Greenwich was adopted over French objections.

The anti-monument photographed by Wallace is about 14 miles west of Cape Schmidt in the Siberian arctic. There can be few more remote inhabited places on the globe. The amazing thing is that I can visit Cape Schmidt -- with its small Russian and Chukchi communities, air-traffic control station, and air field -- without leaving my laptop. Google Earth is surely one of the most remarkable gifts of the internet, and if you don't have it you should download it free. The monument is at longitude 180 degrees -- exactly! -- and latitude approximately 69 degrees. Type in the find box 68.96, 180, then drive east across the tundra to Cape Schmidt. (Click to enlarge.)