If We Burn it all, We Melt it All

September 12, 2015

New York Times:

Burning all the world’s deposits of coal, oil and natural gas would raise the temperature enough to melt the entire ice sheet covering Antarctica, driving the level of the sea up by more than 160 feet, scientists reported Friday.

In a major surprise to the scientists, they found that half the melting could occur in as little as a thousand years, causing the ocean to rise by something on the order of a foot per decade, roughly 10 times the rate at which it is rising now. Such a pace would almost certainly throw human society into chaos, forcing a rapid retreat from the world’s coastal cities.

The rest of the earth’s land ice would melt along with Antarctica, and warming ocean waters would expand, so that the total rise of the sea would likely exceed 200 feet, the scientists said.

“To be blunt: If we burn it all, we melt it all,” said Ricarda Winkelmann, a researcher at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany and the lead author of a paper published Friday in the journal Science Advances.

Science News:

Enough fossil fuels remain to release around 10,000 billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere. The future of Antarctic ice depends on how much of that stockpile society burns through, researchers report September 11 in Science Advances. Simulating how Antarctic ice will respond to rising temperatures and a changing environment, the team estimates that 600 billion to 800 billion tons of further carbon emissions would destabilize the West Antarctic ice sheet. Humans emitted an estimated 545 billion tons of carbon from 1870 through 2014, with approximately 10 billion tons released in 2013. Burning all remaining fossil fuels would result in a nearly ice-free Antarctic.

Here, more on sensitivity in East Antarctica:

Even though the simulated emissions were released in fewer than 500 years, the effects of elevated carbon dioxide lingered for more than 10,000 years, the researchers say.

Since this is a model study, it’s probably relevant to hear part of our interview with Ken Caldeira, an author of the study mentioned here – on the value of climate models.

Carnegie Science:

Washington, DC—New work from an international team including Carnegie’s Ken Caldeira 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. Because so many major cities are at or near sea level, this would put many highly populated areas where more than a billion people live under water, including New York City and Washington, DC. It is published in Science Advances.

“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,” Caldeira said.  “Most previous studies of Antarctic have focused on loss of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. Our study demonstrates that burning coal, oil, and gas also risks loss of the much larger East Antarctic Ice Sheet.”

Caldeira initiated this project with lead author Ricarda Winkelmann while she was a Visiting Investigator at the Carnegie Institution for Science.  Winkelmann and co-author Anders Levermann are at the Postdam Institute for Climate Impact Research; co-author Andy Ridgwell is at the University of California Riverside.

Although Antarctica has already begun to lose ice, a complex array of factors will determine the ice sheet’s future, including greenhouse gas-caused atmospheric warming, additional oceanic warming perpetuated by the atmospheric warming, and the possible counteracting effects of additional snowfall.

“It is much easier to predict that an ice cube in a warming room is going to melt eventually than it is to say precisely how quickly it will vanish,” Winkelmann said, explaining all the contributing factors for which the team’s models had to account.

UPDATE: Couple other things –

The Washington Post report contained this fun fact:

The Antarctica question — whether there’s actually enough  fossil fuel in the world to raise global temperatures enough to melt the entire ice sheet — surfaced at least as far back as 1979, when The New York Times published an article about the possible consequences of an Antarctic ice sheet collapse. This was the article that got climate scientist Ken Caldeira, a researcher at Stanford University’s Carnegie Institute of Science and the new study’s senior author, interested in climate change in the first place, and in the Antarctica question in particular.

which inspired me to look up that original piece from 1979 – sure enough –

1979nytimes_antarctic2

The piece mentions antarctic scientist John Mercer, who I have profiled here. Mercer’s 1978 predictions of Antarctic collapse are being borne out in study after study, as the videos above show.

mercerheadThe other scientist mentioned is the late Stephen Schneider, one of the most famous and tenacious truth tellers of climate science. I’ve posted Schneider’s late 70’s warnings about climate change:

Which of course, once again crushes that perennial climate denial crock, “they predicted an ice age in the 70s” – making me think of this news report from 1970, again inconvenient for the denial crowd.

7 Responses to “If We Burn it all, We Melt it All”

  1. Lionel Smith Says:

    You can construct your own transects of continental landmasses with http://www.geomapapp.org/“>”GeoMapApp is an earth science exploration and visualization application.”

  2. Lionel Smith Says:

    Stephen Schneider is sorely missed, his courageous facing, whilst very sick’, of a room full ‘skeptics’ (introduced as ‘doubters’) in Australia Oct 2010 shortly before his death was superb.

    Climate Expert faces a roomful of ‘Skeptics’ 1/4

  3. j4zonian Says:

    But, but… we’ve known this all along, because we know that nothing acts alone in an ecological world. We’ve known for a while that given the existence of tipping points—releases of carbon from tundra, clathrates, and forests, and the decreasing albedo that the melting ice itself causes in Greenland, the Arctic, the Antarctic, and every glacier in the world—that there was far more than enough carbon in the world to melt everything. Almost every report on this study I’ve seen does a gross disservice to reality and human society. The reports need to point out that burning coal, oil and gas doesn’t act alone, that with methane and other GHG emissions from agriculture and land use changes, and tipping points, it’s not likely to take a couple of hundred years, or a thousand years, for things to happen.

    Enough melt is almost certainly going to happen during the lifetimes of people now alive that, combined with other effects, it will wreck civilization. Hansen’s recent study gives 2065 as a time when coastal cities will have to be abandoned; others have mentioned 2050. Given feedbacks both internal and external to the ice, it might even be sooner. To have articles mention 500 or 1000 years as how long it will take for all of Antarctica to melt may be within the realm of possibility but gives more ammunition not just to the professional denying delayalists but to everyone who’s on the fence or confused and of course, wants to think bad news is as far away as they can. Reports need to give the facts about the study, but also need to report on the other facts, and comments need to reinforce the fact that effects are happening now and are getting a lot worse very soon.


  4. […] VIDEO: If We Burn it all, We Melt it All (Climate Crocks): In a major surprise to the scientists, they found that half the melting could occur in as little as a thousand years, causing the ocean to rise by something on the order of a foot per decade, roughly 10 times the rate at which it is rising now. […]


  5. […] VIDEO: If We Burn it all, We Melt it All (Climate Crocks): In a major surprise to the scientists, they found that half the melting could occur in as little as a thousand years, causing the ocean to rise by something on the order of a foot per decade, roughly 10 times the rate at which it is rising now. […]


  6. […] VIDEO: If We Burn it all, We Melt it All (Climate Crocks): In a major surprise to the scientists, they found that half the melting could occur in as little as a thousand years, causing the ocean to rise by something on the order of a foot per decade, roughly 10 times the rate at which it is rising now. […]


  7. […] VIDEO: If We Burn it all, We Melt it All (Climate Crocks): In a major surprise to the scientists, they found that half the melting could occur in as little as a thousand years, causing the ocean to rise by something on the order of a foot per decade, roughly 10 times the rate at which it is rising now. […]


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