World / Science & Health

Burning all fossil fuels could thaw Antarctica, raise sea level almost 60 meters: study


Burning all the world’s fossil fuel reserves could thaw the entire Antarctic ice sheet and push up sea levels by nearly 60 meters (200 feet), an international study said on Friday.

Such a melt, which also would eliminate the far smaller ice sheet on Greenland, is a worst-case scenario of climate change. It would inundate cities from New York to Shanghai and change maps of the world, with much of the Netherlands, Bangladesh and Florida under water.

“Burning the currently attainable fossil fuel resources is sufficient to eliminate the (Antarctic) ice sheet,” the scientists wrote in the journal Science Advances. The water from Antarctica’s ice would raise the sea level by 58 meters (190 feet).

Even current emissions from oil, coal and natural gas could make the West Antarctic ice sheet unstable, they said, if continued for 60 to 80 years. That would account for just 6 to 8 percent of fossil fuel reserves.

“What we are doing right now might change the face of the Earth for millennia to come,” said lead author Ricarda Winkelmann of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany.

France will host a summit of almost 200 nations from Nov. 30 to Dec. 11 to seek ways to combat climate change, partly by shifting from fossil fuels to renewable energies.

Christiana Figueres, the U.N.’s climate chief, said a week ago that two-thirds or more of fossil fuel reserves would have to stay in the ground to limit warming to a U.N. ceiling of 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial times to avert ever-worsening floods, droughts and heat waves.

Friday’s study estimated that curbs on emissions to limit warming to 2 C could restrict long-term sea level rise to a few meters. Seas have already risen by about 20 cm (8 inches) since 1900.

“If we don’t stop dumping our waste carbon dioxide into the sky, land that is now home to more than a billion people will one day be under water,” Ken Caldeira, a co-author at the U.S. Carnegie Institution, said in a statement.

A thaw of much of Antarctica is remote even with high rates of warming. Temperatures at the South Pole were a bone-chilling minus 71 C (minus 95 F) on Friday, according to the U.S. National Weather Service.

But Winkelmann said a flow of ice toward the ocean could eventually thin the 2,700-meter-thick ice at the pole, exposing the surface to warmer temperatures.