Antarctica to melt?: Antarctica Melting

Published: September 12, 2015

Antarctica to melt?: Antarctica Melting, We humans like to live near the water. In fact, half of the U.S. population lives within 50 miles of the coast, and 40 percent of the world’s population is within 60 miles of the ocean. That’s one reason sea level rise brought on by climate change would be so devastating.

Today in Science Advances, an international team of physicists and climate researchers led by Ricarda Winkelmann at Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany calculated what would happen if we humans finish burning through our estimated 10,000 gigatons of total carbon resources (including all our oil and natural gas) at full throttle. The results are not pretty. Their model, which calculated how completely the various ice-sheets composing the Antarctic continent will melt given different influxes of atmospheric carbon dioxide, predicts 160 feet of sea level rise based on that extreme scenario. With an extra 160 feet of water, you can wave goodbye to New York City, Boston, L.A, Beijing, Tokyo, and Cairo, as well as almost all of lowly Bangladesh and Florida.

According to Winkelmann’s calculations, even smaller amounts of atmospheric carbon dioxide will have staggering and long-lasting effects on both the melting antarctic and global sea rise.

“Anyone intuitively understands that as ice heats up, it melts… this is not just as simple”

This chart shows how Antarctic ice would be affected by different emissions scenarios. (GtC stands for gigatons of carbon.)
Ken Caldeira and Ricarda Winkelmann
If you assume that we go on burning our 2013 levels of carbon dioxide pollution for another 120 years (that’s assuming we don’t increase our CO2 production past 2013 levels), that would cause a 15-foot rise in the next thousand years, and an astonishing 50-foot rise in the next 10,000.

“There’s a fundamental lesson we should take from this: the actions and economic path we take today will have far-reaching consequences,” says Bob Kopp, a climate scientist at Rutgers University who was not involved in the research. “We’re already feeling the effects of the rising level of global carbon dioxide. But we should keep in mind that these gasses stay up in the atmosphere for many millennia, causing increasing changes that will be irreversible on a human timescales.”

According to Ken Caldeira, a climate scientist with Stanford University who was on the research team, calculating how warmer temperatures and greenhouse gasses increase Antarctic melting is a far more complicated task than you might think. “While I’m sure anyone intuitively understands that as ice heats up, it melts… this is not just as simple as a big block of ice melting,” he says.

“What we have is good, solid evidence that humans could melt all the ice on this Earth”

That’s because Antarctic’s many sheets of ice melt and respond differently to various water and air temperatures, causing physical effects that are a total pain to model with any accuracy, such as cave-ins when ice melts rapidly from below. Worse, the subtle effect of these relatively small-scale phenomena can cause complicated feedback loops that can speed up the rate at which different parts of Antarctica melt. (Or in some cases slow it down, such as when slightly warmer air causes more snow to fall.)

Because of this complicated puzzle, sophisticated models like this one can offer unexpected insights. For example: While the concept that burning all 10,000 gigatons of Earth’s carbon resources would melt the Antarctic may not come as a huge surprise to climate scientists—at least according to Kopp—Caldeira explains that “our study nonetheless surprised me in two ways. First in showing how fast these ice sheets melt, and second in demonstrating how the warming effect from CO2 hangs around for such an incredibly long time.”

“But the bigger point here is not a subtle one,” Caldeira says. “What we have is good, solid, quantitative evidence that humans could melt all the ice on this Earth”—and are quickly moving in that direction.

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