Burning All the World’s Fossil Fuels Would Melt Antarctica’s Ice

Calving ice near Paradise Harbor in Antarctica in Jan. 2015. The continent's ice sheet and the rest of the world's land ice would melt if all the world's fossil fuels were burned, a new climate study found. (PHOTO CREDIT: Ralph Lee Hopkins/National Geographic Creative)
Calving ice near Paradise Harbor in Antarctica in Jan. 2015. The continent’s ice sheet and the rest of the world’s land ice would melt if all the world’s fossil fuels were burned, a new climate study found. (PHOTO CREDIT: Ralph Lee Hopkins/National Geographic Creative)

Burning all the world’s deposits of coal, oil and natural gas would raise the temperature enough to melt the entire ice sheet covering Antarctica, driving the level of the sea up by more than 160 feet, scientists reported Friday.

In a major surprise to the scientists, they found that half the melting could occur in as little as a thousand years, causing the ocean to rise by something on the order of a foot per decade, roughly 10 times the rate at which it is rising now. Such a pace would almost certainly throw human society into chaos, forcing a rapid retreat from the world’s coastal cities.

The rest of the earth’s land ice would melt along with Antarctica, and warming ocean waters would expand, so that the total rise of the sea would likely exceed 200 feet, the scientists said.

“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 published Friday in the journal Science Advances.

A sea level rise of 200 feet would put almost all of Florida, much of Louisiana and Texas, the entire East Coast of the United States, large parts of Britain, much of the European Plain, and huge parts of coastal Asia under water. The cities lost would include Miami, New Orleans, Houston, Washington, New York, Amsterdam, Stockholm, London, Paris, Berlin, Venice, Buenos Aires, Beijing, Shanghai, Sydney, Rome and Tokyo.

Nobody alive today, nor even their grandchildren, would live to see such a calamity unfold, given the time the melting would take. Yet the new study gives a sense of the risks that future generations face if emissions of greenhouse gases are not brought under control.

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

Climate scientists have long assumed that countries would recognize the dangers of continuing to dig up and burn the world’s fossil fuels. Yet they have been saying that for 30 years, and political efforts in that time to limit the burning have been ineffectual.

With a major push from President Obama, the nations of the world will convene in Paris in December in another attempt to reach an ambitious deal for reducing emissions. Yet Mr. Obama faces fierce opposition from the Republican Party in putting limits into effect in the United States, which uses more fossil fuels per person than any other large country.

The long-running political gridlock has prompted scientists to start thinking about worst-case scenarios. And recently, major advances have been made in the computerized analysis of the huge ice sheets covering Antarctica and Greenland.

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SOURCE: NY Times, Justin Gillis

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