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Burning All of the World's Fossil Fuels Would Completely Melt the Antarctic Ice Sheet

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Here's another argument for keeping the world's fossil fuels in the ground: If all the coal, gas and oil on Earth is extracted and burned, the Antarctic ice sheet will melt entirely, scientists warn in a new "blockbuster" study published last Friday in the research journal Science Advances.

"If we want to avoid Antarctica to become ice-free, we need to keep coal, gas and oil in the ground." Photo credit: Tak / Flickr

"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," says Ricarda Winkelmann, lead study author of the Postdam Institute for Climate Impact Research.

"For the first time we have shown there is sufficient fossil fuel to melt all of Antarctica," Winkelmann, told the Guardian.

"This would not happen overnight," she added, "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."

As the Washington Post reports, "[t]he 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."

To answer that question, the researchers used a state-of-the-art ice sheet model, which Winkelmann helped develop, to make projections on what would happen if humans burned various amounts of fossil fuels in the coming centuries, including what would happen if we burned all the available fuel on Earth—an amount equivalent to about 10,000 gigatons of carbon, according to previous estimates.

Under that nightmare scenario, the scientists explain in a study abstract, "Antarctica is projected to become almost ice-free with an average contribution to sea-level rise exceeding 3 [meters] per century during the first millennium."

"This kind of sea-level rise would be unprecedented in the history of civilization," Winkelmann told the Washington Post, which in turn wrote that "such an enormous rate of sea-level rise would likely wipe out many of the world’s coastal cities. In the U.S., alone, San Francisco would be reduced to a handful of islands, New York City would be submerged and Florida would disappear entirely."

Previous studies have shown that the rate of melting ice in Antarctica's vulnerable Amundsen Sea region has tripled in the past decade and that rapid melting of Antarctic ice could push sea levels up 10 feet worldwide within two centuries, "recurving" heavily populated coastlines and essentially reshaping the world.

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