Monday, September 14, 2015

Burning all fossil fuels could melt Antarctica

That's the conclusion of a study cited by GeoBeats News: Burning All The World's Fossil Fuel Would Lead To 200 Feet Of Sea Level Rise.

A recent study has attempted to answer the question as to what happens to the iciest continent if fossil fuel use continues apace. The answer is alarming: all of Antarctica’s ice would melt—and take down much of human civilization with it.

If we use all the world's fossil fuels, we're likely to melt all the ice on Antarctica. And what's left would barely resemble the Earth as we know it. A study in Science Advances notes that burning all the world's presently-existing oil, coal, and natural gas would raise global temperatures so high that all of Antarctica's ice would melt—resulting in a sea level rise of at least 160 feet. But if temperatures reached such a point, the rest of the world's land ice would likely melt as well. This could result in a sea level rise of over 200 feet. Gone would be Paris, London, Tokyo, Beijing, New York, Washington, New Orleans and Houston—to name but a few. The process would take a while—the study mapped out ten thousand years of carbon release—but half of the melting could occur in the next thousand years and this could result in sea levels rising around a foot per decade. Climate scientist Ken Caldeira noted, “We’re not a subtle influence on the climate system—we are really hitting it with a hammer.”
I think this is an extreme case.  I doubt we'll be able to burn all the fossil fuel on the planet, as some of it, such as oil shale and the deeper tar sands deposits, will probably be uneconomic to exploit.  I expect we'll move off of fossil fuels by then, either by moving to advanced renewables (electricity generation by wind and solar) and fusion (should we be so lucky) or modern industrial civilization collapsing and the survivors moving to primitive renewables (biomass, passive solar, and wind and water for mechanical energy).  Either way, I don't expect humans will be able to melt all of Antarctica, even in 5,000 years.  However, things are bad enough and getting worse as climate change is happening at record pace and 20-40 feet of sea level rise in the next 500 years or less (including 5-10 feet by the end of the century) is not out of the question even if we stop burning fossil fuels tomorrow.  We should prepare for that future and attempt what we can to make it less dangerous now.

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