We all know it’s not a great idea for the world to keep burning more fossil fuels. A new study hammers this point home: If the world burns all the coal, gas, and coal left available, it would lead the Antarctic Ice Sheet to melt almost completely, causing devastating levels of sea level rise.
The research, published in the journal Science Advances, models the impact of continuing to put carbon in the atmosphere at the rate occurring today. Over the next 1,000 years, cumulative amounts of CO2 would increase temperatures such that sea levels would rise by 58 meters, or up to 200 feet.
“Our results show that the currently attainable carbon fuel resources are sufficient to eliminate the Antarctic Ice Sheet and that large parts of the ice sheet are threatened at much lower amounts of cumulative emission,” the study says.
Even much smaller levels of sea rise would be enough to inundate many of the world’s cities. Up to 180 U.S. cities alone could be threatened by 2100, according to another study. But the impacts would be much worse over the longer term, leading to increases more than one inch per year for the rest of the millennium.
To keep global warming at relatively safe levels of two degrees above pre-industrial levels, scientists say we should burn no more than about a third of reserves recorded by energy companies (reserves that are attainable with today’s technology, not all possible reserves as the Antarctic study considers). Indeed, we don’t need all the Antarctic to melt before we’re in trouble. The study shows the West Antarctic Ice Sheet becomes unstable with just 600 to 800 gigatons of additional carbon emissions, not the 10,000 gigatons that are possible if we exploit absolutely everything.