For many years, I’ve always tried to wile away the hours on long, dark winter days re-reading some of the classic sagas of early polar explorers.

The exploits of such intrepid adventurers as Sir Ernest Shackleton, the Irish-born explorer lionized for his incredible tale of survival when his three-masted, wooden-hulled ship Endurance became trapped and eventually destroyed in Antarctic pack ice, make the dreary skies and cold rain of a Northwest winter seem downright convivial.

Truthfully, Shackleton was one of the most star-crossed explorers ever, having mounted a 1909 expedition to reach the South Pole that was turned back by vicious storms at 89 degrees latitude, less than 100 miles from the Pole. Two years later, Norwegian Roald Amundsen beat British Captain Robert Falcon Scott in a race to reach the South Pole, the equivalent at that time of putting a man on the moon.

His failure drove Shackleton in 1914 to attempt to become the first person to cross Antarctica by ship. These days, that seems crazed, now that we can view satellite imagery showing the incredible breadth and expanse of the Antarctic ice sheets. As it turns out, it was a crazy idea for Shackleton, too.

It’s not like he didn’t give it a go, as they say in the UK, however. His ship was built as strong as early 20th century technology allowed. The keel was made of layers of solid oak seven feet thick. The sides of the hull were three feet thick and sheathed in greenheart, a South American evergreen so hard it can’t be worked with normal iron tools. The ship’s bow, which would be hitting the ice floes head-on, was made from a single four- foot thick oak tree chosen so that is natural shape followed the curve of the design. The ship also had a 350-horsepower coal-fired steam engine capable of speeds up to 10 knots an hour.

Nevertheless, the Endurance soon became trapped in shifting pack ice and after drifting for almost nine months, was crushed and sunk, which forced Shackleton and his 27-member crew to abandon the giant ice floe on which they were camped and set out in three tiny lifeboats to Elephant Island, some 350 miles away.

The rest of the story is well-known, as they battled storms, dodged icebergs and even crossed South Georgia Island on foot over mountains never previously traversed to reach a whaling station that sent out a ship to rescue the rest of his expedition.

The impact of rapid change

Shackleton’s story is more than mere entertainment to kill off a few weeks of winter weather, however. The account of his ill-fated journeys over pack ice have taken on a new relevance, as recent data show that 100 years after he set out from Great Britain, his dream of sailing across Antarctica is no longer so implausible.

Thanks to several decades of relentless warming, Antarctica’s dozens of ice shelves, which buttress the land-based glaciers covering most of the continent, have become decidedly unstable. An 18-mile rift now stretches across the giant Pine Glacier, threatening to release an iceberg 14 times the size of Manhattan. Warmer ocean water has penetrated underneath the ice shelf, causing the glacier to retreat more than 15 miles since 1990. In contrast, ice core measurements show that the glacier had only moved back by about 55 miles over the previous 10,000 years.

Elsewhere, warming trends are equally dramatic:

  • During the fall of 2012, Arctic Ocean sea ice shrank to a record low surface area and volume, thanks to an average warming of 3.6 degrees F just since the 1960s—twice as much as lower latitudes. According to estimates by the Earth Policy Institute, the ever-present white cap at the top of the world could disappear entirely during summers as soon as 2030. Transportation companies are already planning how to capitalize on ice-free Arctic shipping lanes expected to develop in the next few years.
  • Greenland’s enormous ice sheet is losing volume at a record pace, from 51 billion tons a year in the 1990s to 263 billion tons a year today. In July 2012, an iceberg 25 miles long and six miles wide broke off from northwest Greenland; an iceberg twice that size broke away two years earlier.
  • Mountain glaciers around the world are rapidly disappearing, according to World Glacier Monitoring Service. In the Himalayas—the largest concentration of ice outside of the polar regions—rapid melting could jeopardize the Ganges and other major Asian rivers. In South America, ice loss in the Andean glaciers has tripled during the past 30 years. In the Alps, 90% of the glacial ice could be gone by the end of the century.

Even worse, the wholesale melting of polar ice jeopardizes heavily populated coastal regions around the world. Combined, the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets contain enough ice to raise global ocean levels by 40 feet if they disintegrated entirely. Even a one-meter rise in sea levels would flood land occupied by millions of people and inundate critical food-producing areas, such as the “rice bowls” of Vietnam and Bangladesh.

That brings us to the impact climate change might have on animal agriculture in the United States. Even if the worst-case scenarios don’t take place, the devastation of Asian farmland and the consequent demand for imported food by countries there could send feed prices through the roof. That alone could threaten the viability of livestock production.

Or the highly variable weather patterns that are emerging as climate change accelerates could cause prolonged droughts, an endless cycle of “superstorms” and rising summer temperatures that would preclude cultivation of our current inventory of food crops, also a less-than pleasant scenario for animal agriculture.

A century ago, Shackleton’s biggest challenge was somehow constructing a ship strong enough to withstand the enormous pressure the pack ice exerts on anything trapped within. In that effort, he failed miserably.

Today, our challenge regarding the polar regions of the world is monumentally more daunting.

Let’s hope we fare better than he did.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.