Burning All Our Fossil Fuels Would Melt Antarctica Entirely

September 22, 2015 | Sarah Tse

Chunks of melting ice in the ocean

A new scientific model of the effects of carbon emissions on ice sheet melting shows that if we continue burning fossil fuels, the entire continent of Antarctica will become a thing of the past.

The ongoing deterioration of polar ice sheets is hardly news at this point, and has instead become a disturbingly banal fact of 21st century life. But climatologists find this complacence alarming because of increasing evidence that indicates our current activities are wholly unsustainable and dangerous for the future of our species. Another nail in the coffin comes from a recent study that modeled what will happen if we burn up all the remaining fossil fuels in the world: it will release enough carbon dioxide to eradicate the entire Antarctic ice sheet.

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Our use of dirty fossil fuels, like oil, coal, and natural gas, releases greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide that trap solar heat in the atmosphere and warm the planet. We’ve already used up a good portion of the fossil fuels that have formed over the planet’s 4-billion-year history, and pumped quite a bit of carbon into the air — enough to radically change how the Arctic is portrayed in world atlases. But if we don’t switch to cleaner energy sources, we will warm the Earth beyond repair and deprive future generations of the joy of emperor penguins.

Recent studies have already hinted that West Antarctica’s melting may have reached the point of no return. No matter what we do, the glaciers will continue retreating until the entire shelf is threatened. Now this new model predicts that the rest of the continent could easily follow suit if business continues as usual.

Since carbon dioxide persists in the atmosphere for millennia, the researchers modeled the behavior of the Antarctic over the next 10,000 years under different conditions of carbon emissions. By looking over such a long time scale, the study also avoids the small blips that result from factors like differential warming of atmosphere and ocean, or mitigation by snowfall.

In the worst case scenario, if the 10,000 gigatons of carbon sequestered in our remaining fossil fuel supply enters the atmosphere, half the Antarctic ice sheet will melt in the next 1,000 years, and the rest of the ice sheet will follow within 10,000 years. That would cause a sea level rise of about 3 m or 9.8’ per century. Once the entire ice sheet melts, we’re looking at a cumulative sea level rise of 60 m (65 yd) — enough to completely submerge most coastal cities where over a billion people live.

Even in the best case scenario for carbon emissions, where we maintain global warming under the 2 degrees Celsius benchmark used by climate policymakers, sea levels will still rise at least 2 m over the next millennium. Hopefully the world’s political leaders will take note of this study, as well as other alarm bells being rung by scientists, before attending the UN climate change conference in Paris this December. The research provides irrefutable evidence that our current attempts to curb environmental degradation are simply not good enough.

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