Rather less pleasingly, a few news stories that have emerged over the Christmas and New Year period have seemed to echo elements of Shackleton’s Man Goes South, or to be redolent of the fictional world in which some of the novel’s action takes place. These news stories are in addition to the series of storms, gales and floods (with their attendant severe weather warnings), that have hit the UK in recent weeks. I was astonished in the early hours of Christmas Eve, for instance, when the usually highly codified language of the Shipping Forecast (broadcast at 00:48 on 24 December 2013), was interrupted by discussion of ‘a massive area of low pressure of almost unprecedented depth’ that stretched from the UK to Iceland.
First, the announcement that some extraordinary items of Shackletoniana have been discovered in Antarctica. Twenty-two cellulose nitrate negatives of photographs were found in Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s expedition hut at Cape Evans. The photographs turned out to have been taken not by Scott’s expedition photographer Herbert Ponting, but by person unknown during the occupation of the hut a few years later by members of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Ross Sea party, who used the hut as a base when they became stranded on Antarctica while attempting to lay supplies for Shackleton’s Endurance party. The terrible hardships endured by the Ross Sea party, and the deaths of Arnold Spencer-Smith, Victor Hayward and party leader Lieutenant Aeneas Mackintosh are often omitted from more triumphalist accounts of Shackleton’s expedition. See a slideshow of the photos on the New Zealand Antarctic Heritage Trust website.
Secondly, in an echo of the 2007 sinking of the MS Explorer, which struck an iceberg and capsized while attempting to retrace parts of Shackleton’s Endurance expedition, a Russian vessel, the MV Akademik Shokalskiy has been trapped in ice for more than a week, with seventy-four scientists, tourists and crew on board. The Australasian Antarctic Expedition 2012-14 set out to retrace the 1911-14 expedition of Douglas Mawson, conducting ‘a programme of research across the region, building on the work 100 years ago, to try to better understand present and future change in Antarctica and Southern Ocean.’ All attempts at rescue have so far failed, and yesterday the BBC speculated that at least one of the rescue vessels — the Chinese vessel Xue Long — had itself become stuck in ice. Back in 2007-8, Dr John Shears of the British Antarctic Survey told me that the passengers and crew rescued from the MS Explorer had been ‘lucky to survive’. One hopes that those trapped on the Shokalskiy share that luck. (Note: Thankfully, 24-hours after I posted this, Chris Turney posted this video clip: ‘The first of the helicopters to take us home!’)
Thirdly, an article published by the Nation reports the views of a number of scientists who fear that climate change may be both far worse and much more sudden than anticipated, to create what one of those interviewed (John Nissen, chairman of the Arctic Methane Emergency Group) describes as an “instant planetary emergency.” Dahr Jamail’s article for the Nation is a must-read, and it echoes the suggestions of scientists that I’ve interviewed, that IPCC forecasts, however grim-sounding, have been underestimative, best-case scenarios. Another article, published in Nature and widely reported on New Year’s Eve, backs this up, suggesting that (in the words of the Guardian newspaper’s Damian Carrington):
Temperature rises resulting from unchecked climate change will be at the severe end of those projected, according to a new scientific study. The scientist leading the research said that unless emissions of greenhouse gases were cut, the planet would heat up by a minimum of 4C by 2100, twice the level the world’s governments deem dangerous.
In the most alarming echo of Shackleton’s Man Goes South, Dahr Jamail’s Nation article quotes atmospheric and marine scientist Ira Leifer, who says:
“Some scientists are indicating we should make plans to adapt to a 4C world,” [ … ] “While prudent, one wonders what portion of the living population now could adapt to such a world, and my view is that it’s just a few thousand people [seeking refuge] in the Arctic or Antarctica.”
My novel Shackleton’s Man Goes South follows Emily and Jenny, refugees who are trying to reach the safety of Antarctica. In the slang of their post-melt world, Emily and Jenny are refugees known as ‘mangoes’, a corruption of the saying ‘man go south’. Emily and Jenny’s journey purposely echoes not only Sir Ernest Shackleton’s heroic escape, but those of many contemporary migrants. Even having written about just such a world, I am still surprised and shocked to read Leifer’s vision of the future: ‘a few thousand people [seeking refuge] in the Arctic or Antarctica’.
An exhibition accompanying the novel runs in the Science Museum’s Atmosphere Gallery until 24 April 2014.