If We Burn All the World's Fossil Fuels, We'll Melt Antarctica & Flood the Earth
Scientists have finally answered the 'Antarctica Question,' and the answer is: Stop burning goddam coal and oil.
The Canada glacier in Antarcitca. Photo: NSF, National Antarctic Library
Well, climatologists have answered the so-called 'Antarctica question'—whether burning the planet's reserves of coal, oil, and natural gas would melt our iciest continent—and, as you might imagine, it's not a pleasant conclusion. It's a resounding "Yes."
Renowned climate scientist Ken Caldeira (who I profiled here) and a team of researchers have modeled the scenario in which humankind burns through every last sooty inch of its carbon reserves. Their finding?
"We show in simulations using the Parallel Ice Sheet Model that burning the currently attainable fossil fuel resources is sufficient to eliminate the ice sheet," the authors write in a study published today in Science Advances. Yes, that's eliminate, as in, entirely. "With cumulative fossil fuel emissions of 10,000 gigatonnes of carbon (GtC)"—the total amount worldwide—"Antarctica is projected to become almost ice-free with an average contribution to sea-level rise exceeding 3 meter per century during the first millennium."
The study notes that the Antarctic ice sheet stores 58 meters worth of global sea level rise. If it melts, the planet will barely resemble Earth, and Kevin Costner's WaterWorld will, unfortunately, for a number of reasons, again become a sadly pertinent reference point.
Right now, we're locked into at least 10 feet of sea level rise from melting ice sheets in Antarctica, and that will force us to dramatically redesign coastal communities and infrastructure around the world.
It would likely take thousands of years, and we probably won't burn all the fossil fuels no matter how hard we try, but 58 meters of rise—some 190 feet—would simply reconfigure the entire planet. It's one of the strongest scientific prerogatives we've yet received—and there have been plenty of them—to keep fossil fuels in the ground.