Two Sea Shepherd ships will soon be heading into the area in the Ross Sea that scientists warned last week may witness a catastrophic collapse. The Ross Ice Shelf is the largest body of solid ice in the world with an estimated 32 million cubic kilometers of fresh water.
At the same time that the Sea Shepherd volunteer crew will be pursuing outlaw Japanese whaling activities they will be collecting sea water and air temperature samples and collecting bottles of water to be tested for levels of salinity. The crew will photograph and observe the size, shape, and behavior of icebergs, and will observe the conditions along the Ross Ice Shelf itself.
What will be the consequences if the shelf collapses while the Sea Shepherd ships are down in the Ross Sea area?
"I think that will certainly put an end to whaling for this summer," said Founder and President of Sea Shepherd Captain Paul Watson with a laugh. "But seriously, the people on Tonga or behind the dykes of the Netherlands or in the Florida Keys will be hit within days and weeks of our demise. There is no escaping the consequences of tampering with the Earth's thermostat."
Sea Shepherd will be taking daily temperature measurements and water samples in the Southern Ocean along the Ross Ice Shelf during the campaign to intercept the Japanese whaling fleet.
A report this week from scientists working in Antarctica indicates that the Ross Ice Shelf, an ice platform the size of France, could collapse quickly and trigger a rapid rise in sea levels up to five meters or more worldwide.
Needless to say this would be a major catastrophic event that will make the 2004 Tsunami look like a ripple on a pond in comparison.
"The problem is that the possibility of such an event is difficult if not impossible for most people to visualize or imagine," said Captain Watson. "Humanity tends to take these things seriously after they happen which is why we respond to relief operations but give little thought to preparations against disaster beforehand."
An analysis of sea floor samples near Scott Base suggested the Ross Ice Shelf had collapsed before, probably suddenly. Scientist Tim Naish said the sediment record gives crucial evidence about how the Ross Ice Shelf would react to climate change. "If the past is any indication of the future, then the ice shelf will collapse," he told the media.
"If the ice shelf goes, then what about the West Antarctic Ice Sheet? What we've learnt from the Antarctic Peninsula is when once buttressing ice sheets go, the glaciers feeding them move faster and that's the thing that isn't so cheery."
According to the media reports filed last week, Antarctica stores 90 percent of the world's water, with the West Antarctic Ice Sheet holding an estimated 30 million cubic kilometers. In January 2005, British Antarctic Survey researchers predicted that its collapse would make sea levels rise by at least 5m, with other estimates predicting a rise of up to 17m.
Mr. Naish, a sedimentologist with the Institute of Geological and Nuclear Sciences, said the team was retrieving a detailed history of the ice shelf. "We know from the Larsen Ice Shelf (which collapsed on the Antarctic Peninsula in 2002) that they go extremely quickly," he said.
"We are going down to the Ross Sea so we really should do what we can to contribute to the global understanding of what is going on down there," said Captain Watson. "We have a crisis brewing and bubbling beneath the miles of ice of the Southern Continent. The glaciers are on the move at an accelerated rate, the Larsen Ice Shelf has suffered a major collapse already. For the first time in memory, icebergs have been spotted drifting off Southern New Zealand. I think it's time to say, hey Houston, we've got a problem on Spaceship Earth."
Sea Shepherd is expected to be operating along the coast of Antarctic for the next three months in a campaign to intercept illegal Japanese whaling activities and illegal pirate Patagonia Toothfish poaching.
Last year, the Sea Shepherd ship Farley Mowat seized an illegal Uruguayan toothfish line and chased the Japanese whaling fleet for over four thousand miles.