Antarctica, the best approximation this accursed globe has to the ends of the Earth, is a mysterious and isolated desert. With no settled communities and a terrain that, until very recently, was more foreign to us than that of Mars, it's been left to generations of ill-fated explorers and intrepid geologists to, quite literally, get their names on the map – and, should the contents of their minds, hearts, or pockets prove them worthy, it's the US Board on Geographic Names (BGN) that makes it official.
Back in 1994, the BGN decided to name a glacier in Antarctica's Victoria Land region Marchant Glacier, after David Marchant, a University of Maine researcher who had worked on a project [PDF] mapping the nearby geology.
By 1999, Marchant was an assistant professor at Boston University (BU), and Jane Willenbring was a 22-year-old graduate student working with him on a field expedition to the Antarctic.
"Most days, I would listen to long discussions about how I was a ‘slut’ or a ‘whore,’" Willenbring told BU investigators. If she objected, she said, "he would call me a liar and say, ‘There’s no place in science for liars, is there Jane?’"
Willenbring, now an associate professor at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, first filed a complaint about Marchant's disturbing behavior in 2016, reports Earther – waiting, in a display of depressingly necessary prudence, until after she received tenure to avoid professional reprisals. Marchant had subjected her to verbal and physical harassment, she said, shoving her down slopes, telling her to have sex with his "porn-sized" brother, and even throwing rocks at her when she urinated – when she developed a urinary tract infection from her attempts to avoid this, she alleges, Marchant refused to let her return to base for treatment.
"His taunts, degrading comments about my body, brain, and general inadequacies never ended," another victim told ScienceMag. "Every day was terrifying."
In 2017, after a year of investigation, the university agreed "by a preponderance of the evidence" that Marchant had "engaged in sexual harassment... by directing derogatory and sex-based slurs and sexual comments."
Although Marchant remains on paid administrative leave from BU while his appeal is considered, the BGN ruled last week that his eponymous glacier would get a name change. Officially, the move "brings the name of this feature into alignment with ACAN [Advisory Committee on Antarctic Names] policies" – though BGN Executive Secretary Louis Yost told Earther the committee was aware of Marchant's case when they issued the recommendation.
"I think... under the old policy, the name was bestowed too early in the career," he explained. "We didn’t know what was to come later."
Now named to match the nearby Mata Taua Peak, the 11-kilometer-long (7-mile) glacier's new moniker is a Māori word meaning "a scout before the troops".
Marchant isn't the only researcher lately to lose an accolade due to bad behavior – back in July, a herpetologist had his lifetime achievement award immediately revoked after filling his acceptance speech with pictures of scantily-clad women. But when nearly three-quarters of female academics report having been sexually harassed during fieldwork, this renaming of Matataua Glacier seems like a significant and – for Willenbring, at least – welcome step.
"To me, this is a decision that is a good one and that people should be congratulated for," Willenbring told Earther. "Maybe to some people it would be a small thing, but any kind of acknowledgment gives people power."