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All of Antarctica will Melt if All Fossil Fuels are Burned, New Research Suggests

In a recent climate study, scientists announced that burning the world’s deposits of oil, coal, and natural gas would raise the temperature enough to melt the whole ice sheet covering Antarctica, which would raise the sea level more than 160 feet.  Published in the journal Science Advances on Friday, the study suggests that this could happen in as little as a thousand years, blowing previous predictions out of the water.

This means the ocean may rise by roughly a foot per decade, almost 10 times the rate that it is rising now.  At this pace, society as we know it would be greatly impacted, causing nearly all of Florida, much of Louisiana and Texas, sizeable parts of Britain, a lot of the European Plain, much of coastal Asia, and the entire East Coast of the United States to go under water.  The rest of the earth’s land ice would melt as well, and the warming of the ocean waters would contribute to its expansion, making the total predicted sea level above 200 feet.

“To be blunt: If we burn it all, we melt it all,” said Ricarda Winkelmann, a researcher at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany and the lead author of a paper.

Of course this disaster would not happen in our lifetime, or even our grandchildrens’ lifetime, given how long it would take for the ice to melt, but the new information should definitely serve as a wake up call for us and future generations to get our greenhouse gas emissions under control.

“This is humanity as a geologic force,” said Ken Caldeira, co-author of the paper and a researcher at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Stanford, Calif,. “We’re not a subtle influence on the climate system – we are really hitting it with a hammer.”

But even with constant statements of the issue by countless climate scientists, the political efforts to limit the burning of fossil fuels have been generally ineffectual.  The nations of the world are now planning to convene on the issue in Paris in Decemeber to reach a deal for reducing emissions.  The meeting was largely prompted by U.S. President Barack Obama, but he faces lots of opposition from the Republican Party in putting limits into effect in the United States, despite the country using the most fossil fuels per person on the planet, says The New York Times.  With the intrusion of politics, scientists have began thinking about worst-case scenarios for this situation.  And thanks to major advances in computerized analysis, the accelerating issue of the melting ice sheets in Antarctica and Greenland has become much more real.

The upside to the findings is that we don’t have to revise our sea level forecast for the coming century.  A United Nations panel has already stated that the rise of the sea level would not likely exceed more than three feet in that period, and while that may take out some of the island nations, experts believe that most major cities could protect themselves from it – however, it would probably cost trillions of dollars to do so.  The ice sheets would take longer than 100 years to react to changes in the climate on a large-scale.  However, the paper notes that despite this, at least half the Antarctic ice sheet would still melt or fall into the sea within the first thousand years.

“I didn’t expect it would go so fast,” said Dr. Caldeira. “To melt all of Antarctica, I thought it would take something like 10,000 years.”

To scientists specializing in studying the history of the earth, the findings are a bit less surprising.  “As a paleoclimate person, I don’t feel like this is necessarily a shock to me,” said Robert E. Kopp, a professor of earth system history at Rutgers University, who was not involved in the new research.  Paleoclimatologists already established long ago that Antarctica only iced over in the past 35 million years, and that it was once an abundantly green continent.

Furthermore, while the sea level has been relatively stable for the past several thousand years, Paleoclimatologists will note that changes like the ones outlined in this new research have actually occurred in the past.  The deeper history of earth shows us huge shifts in water levels, with a hundred feet or more taking place over a few thousand years.  All around the world, sea levels have been documented as far higher than they are today.  For example, seashells from 3 million years ago were unearthed a hundred miles inland from the current shore along the East Coast.  From this evidence, scientists have concluded that the prominent ice sheets are indeed sensitive to even small changes in the earth’s average temperature, which is caused by ‘wobbles’ in its orbit around the sun, but climate is a whole different story.  A story which humans are adding a much earlier end to with the changes our emissions are bringing.

The climate is still in the very early stages of its shift, but the ice sheets in Greenland and the western low-lying part of Antarctica already show significant signs of instability.  The higher, colder ice sheets in the eastern parts of Antarctica used to be thought as more stable, but in the last few years, various pieces of evidence have been piling up that suggest that large parts of that ice sheet are vulnerable as well.  Additionally, this new information confirms previously held beliefs about the relationship between the total amount of fossil fuel humans burn and the state of the world’s ice.  If we were able to move away from fossil fuels over the approaching decades we could preserve much of the ice, or at least greatly slow the melting down.

Continuing at the same rate as the past century, the use of fossil fuels would lead to the world’s estimated deposits depleting sometime in the mid 22nd century, says Dr. Caldeira, and by then the melting of the world’s ice would be already deeply in progress.  It then becomes mainly a question of exactly when it would melt entirely, but he maintains that “the idea that most of it would melt, I believe, is a robust result.”

It’s also not just a rise in sea level and a retreat from coastal cities we need to worry about.  Scientists concluded in a rough calculation that burning all the fossil fuels could raise the average temperature of earth by 20 degrees Fahrenheit, a temperature that would likely make many large areas of earth too hot and humid for humans habitation.  Plus it would cause food production to collapse, and push a significant portion of plant and animal life to extinction.

This paper and many of its predecessors, are constantly asking us a profound moral question as a species.  A question perhaps put best by Ian Joughin, an ice sheet expert at the University of Washington who was not involved with the paper.

“What right do we have to do things that, even if they don’t affect us, are going to be someone else’s problem a thousand years from now?  Is it fair to do that so we can go on burning fuel as fast as we can?”


About Jürgen Rae

Jürgen Rae
Jürgen is an avid writer. His love of creating content is only surpassed by his love of consuming it. When he isn't surfing the web or hanging out with friends he can usually be found immersed in music production, sketching, or a good book. Contact Jurgen: