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Burning remaining fossil fuels could cause 60-meter sea-level rise

This chart shows how Antarctic ice would be affected by different emissions scenarios. (GtC stands for gigatons of carbon.)

How Antarctic ice would be affected by different emissions scenarios – GtC stands for gigatons of carbon. Courtesy of Ken Caldeira and Ricarda Winkelmann.

Burning all of the world’s available fossil-fuel resources would result in the complete melting of the Antarctic ice sheet, a new study to be published in Science Advances shows. The new research demonstrates that the planet’s remaining fossil fuel resources would be sufficient to melt nearly all of Antarctica if burned, leading to a 50- or 60-meter (160- to 200-foot) rise in sea level.

The new calculations show that Antarctica’s long-term contribution to sea-level rise could likely be restricted to a few meters if global warming does not exceed governments’ agreed 2degC threshold. While 2degC could still doom small island states and low-lying coast areas, affecting millions of people, greater warming could reshape the East and West ice sheets irreparably, with every additional tenth of a degree increasing the risk of total and irreversible Antarctic ice loss.

This is the first study to model the effects of unrestrained fossil-fuel burning on the entirety of the Antarctic ice sheet. The research found that the West Antarctic ice sheet becomes unstable if carbon emissions continue at current levels for 60 to 80 years, representing only 6 to 8 percent of the 10,000 billion tons of carbon that could be released if we use all accessible fossil fuels. According to lead author Ricarda Winkelmann of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research:

“If we were to burn all attainable fossil fuel resources, this would eliminate the Antarctic ice sheet and cause long-term global sea-level rise unprecedented in human history.”

The study spurred the New York Times website to run a front page story warning that many of the world’s best known cities, including its namesake home, will be drowned. “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.”

According to co-author Ken Cadiera:

“Our findings show that if we do not want to melt Antarctica, we can’t keep taking fossil fuel carbon out of the ground and just dumping it into the atmosphere as CO2 like we’ve been doing. If we don’t stop dumping our waste CO2 into the sky, land that is now home to more than a billion people will one day be underwater.”

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