It was impossible to watch Vanishing Antarctic without mixed feelings. On the one hand there was some beautiful photography to admire, sweeping shots of ice shelves, mostly taken from the air. It made you feel chilly and perhaps even a little Christmassy just watching it. On the other hand what it was revealing was pretty hair-raising, apocalyptic even, unless you are my friend James Delingpole who thinks man-made global warming is a myth. I wish I could share his confidence.
To the credit of Richard Wilson, the former BBC environment correspondent who has been to the region six times over the past twenty years, his film seemed admirably agenda free. At the end, indeed, he made the mature point that it doesn't actually matter whether you believe in man-made global warming or not, the fact is the ice shelves in the Antarctic are melting at an unprecedented rate, and if they continue doing this sea levels will rise by as much as five meters over the next century, which will mean that the huge human populations who live on the world’s coastlines are in serious trouble.
Wilson interviewed glaciologists working for the British Antarctic Survey down there at the bottom of the world, and they too avoided scoring political points, perhaps because they were mindful of the shift in public opinion toward climate change scepticism. They merely explained what it was they were witnessing with their own eyes as well as what their data was telling them. At times they seemed to be in awe of it, mesmerised by its implications.
So far up the political agenda has this subject moved in recent years that some of the previously obscure names of the ice shelves are now household, such as Larsen B, an ice shelf in the Antarctic Peninsula that disappeared almost over night in 2002. The programme concentrated on a less familiar shelf: Pine Island, which has no pine trees and isn't an island. It is one and half times the size of England and is melting rapidly not because of an increase in air temperature, but because the sea underneath it is warming.
What they have discovered lately is that an ice shelf acts like a cork in a bottle of water. Once it is pulled out the glacier behind it empties rapidly. The ice sheet itself does not raise the level of water because it floats, but the glaciers behind it do. I’m sure this documentary will infuriate James, but he has his own TV column in the Spectator where he can put his boot in to it. For me, I’m glad I saw it, even if it has left me feeling perturbed.