Larsen, Shackleton and Global Warming

The Larsen C Ice Shelf has been in the news lately because a section of it larger than Rhode Island is on the verge of breaking off. This ice shelf is the fourth largest in Antarctica. The rapid acceleration of the 300 meter deep fissure in this ice shelf is undoubtedly related to global warming. Temperatures are rising faster in Antarctica than any other place on the globe. The main concern with the loss of an ice shelf is that it acts as a dam holding back land ice and it is the melting of the land ice that will have the most dramatic effect on sea levels.

The ice shelf is named after Carl Anton Larsen who was a Norwegian ship captain that discovered the ice shelf which bears his name in 1893. He was the first person to ski in Antarctica and the first to discover fossils there indicating that Antarctica was once part of a large warmer continent.

Larsen and Shackleton had parallel and intersecting lives. Like Shackleton, Larsen's ship, the Antarctic, was crushed in the Weddell Sea ice pack in 1903, forcing him and his crew to row lifeboats to Paulet Island where he and his crew survived over the winter by eating seals and penguins before being rescued by an Argentinian ship.

Larsen founded Grytviken, the whaling station on South Georgia Island, where Shackleton ended up after his heroic 800 mile journey from Elephant Island by lifeboat and foot. Shackleton and his men most likely would have died if they had not been able to reach this nearest outpost of civilization. Shackleton and the whalers made several attempts to sail to Elephant Island to rescue the bulk of his crew, but kept having to turn back because of storms and the impenetrable icepack. Three months later they finally succeeded.

Larsen championed the building of a Norwegian Lutheran Church in 1913 that remains in use to this day. It is the same church where the funeral services were held for Shackleton when he died in 1922. Shackleton was buried on South Georgia Island. Larsen died two years later while whaling in the Ross Sea.

Shackleton's Voyage: Part One

Sir Earnest Shackleton’s ship, the Endurance, was crushed and sank in the Weddell Sea icepack on November 21, 1915. He and his twenty-seven man crew subsequently lived on the icepack that continued to drift in a northerly direction somewhat parallel to the eastern edge of the Antarctic Peninsula. When the icepack finally melted beneath them, they took to their three longboats. They rowed continuously for several days in these open boats before finally reaching Elephant Island off the northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. Shackleton spent less than two weeks on the island. Midwinter was approaching. There was no time to waste.

     On April 24, 1916, Shackleton and five of his crew sailed for South Georgia Island, 650 nautical miles (1,050 kilometers) away. There was a whaling station on this island, which Shackleton and his crew knew about because they had stopped there on their way to Antarctica. It was the closest outpost of civilization. And a razor-thin hope for salvation.

     Elephant Island was a remote island, far away from any shipping lanes. No backup ship would be coming to rescue them and they had no radio to inform the world about their plight. The only ship available was the ship they lost. Even if there had been a plan for a rescue ship to come searching for them, they would have been almost impossible to find. All any potential rescuer would have known was that they probably were somewhere within the million square miles of the Weddell Sea.

     The craft that was going to undertake this desperate voyage to South Georgia Island was the James Caird, one of the longboats converted into a makeshift small sailboat by the ship’s resourceful carpenter, Harry McNish. He reportedly did carpentry work using only ‘eyeball’ measurements. Shackleton chose five men to join him: Frank Worsley, the captain of the Endurance, served as navigator, with McNish, the Bosun, John Vincent, and two seamen, Thomas Crean and Tim McCarthy. The remaining twenty-one crewmembers remained on the island—with little hope that Shackleton and his small crew would ever survive.

     The worst danger the James Caird faced on this voyage was colliding with a large piece of berg ice. Such an event would have likely sunk them. Consequently, Shackleton immediately turned north and tried to get as far away from the icepack as he could, before turning east towards South Georgia Island. Luck was with them. They never hit any significant ice. But then they had to deal with the terror of Drake Passage in a twenty-two foot, double-ended boat. (To be continued in subsequent blog postings.)