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Imagining the Most Catastrophic Climate Future Ever

Using up all the planet’s fossil energy would cause a 160-plus-foot rise in sea levels, say scientists.

In the future, Antarctica might be a pleasant-enough place to vacation. That’s if humanity burns through its fossil-fuel reserves, transforming the icy continent into a rocky slab jutting from the tepid ocean.

Of course, such a mass melting would also jack sea levels up so high they’d reach rooftop pools on apartment buildings. So say scientists at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, Stanford, and elsewhere, who’ve modeled a catastrophic scenario of dirty-energy dependence over the next 10,000 years.

Using up all the planet’s reachable fossil fuels would release thousands of gigatonnes of carbon into the atmosphere—far more than the 600 to 800 gigatonnes needed to make the West Antarctic ice sheet unstable, they write in a new study in Science Advances. The ice on the eastern part of the continent would likely break up and melt afterward. Eventually Antarctica would be nearly as bald as Michael Chiklis, as shown in the bottom-right graphic in this sequence of emissions models (brown areas represent exposed bedrock):

Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research et al.

Preventing the world from warming more than 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century—a goal some say is already impossible—would limit Antarctica’s contribution to sea-level rise to under 6.5 feet over the same time period, the researchers say. By contrast, going hog wild with fossil fuels until they’re gone would swell the oceans by as much as 10 feet this century and more than 160 feet over the next 10 millennia. To help visualize the possible Waterworld of Year 12015, take a look at America’s coast under such a deluge in this NASA-based map:

Alex Tingle

And while some parts of Europe are famous for their dikes and flood-control systems, building a 170-foot-wall around everything would certainly test the skills of engineering experts:

Alex Tingle

The researchers leave us with this forceful warning in a press release:

“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,” lead author Ricarda Winkelmann of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research says. “This would not happen overnight, but the mind-boggling point is that our actions today are changing the face of planet Earth as we know it, and will continue to do so for tens of thousands of years to come. If we want to avoid Antarctica to become ice-free, we need to keep coal, gas and oil in the ground.”

“By using more and more fossil energy, we increase the risk of triggering changes that we may not be able to stop or reverse in the future,” co-author Anders Levermann of the Potsdam Institute explains. “The West Antarctic ice sheet may already have tipped into a state of unstoppable ice loss, whether as a result of human activity or not. But if we want to pass on cities like Tokyo, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Calcutta, Hamburg or New York as our future heritage, we need to avoid a tipping in East Antarctica,” he says.

About the Author

  • John Metcalfe
    John Metcalfe is CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, based in Oakland. His coverage focuses on climate change and the science of cities.