Much global attention has been focused on the effects of climate change in the Arctic, and for good reason – the region is melting disproportionately quickly, and the loss of its sea ice has the potential to catastrophically alter climates around the globe. Now Antarctica is finally getting its turn under the microscope as scientists explore the question of whether Antarctica could melt as a result of catastrophic climate change. Recent research concludes that if all of the world’s fossil fuels were burned, the coldest continent would thaw for the first time in fifteen million years.

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The question of whether it was even possible for anthropogenic climate change to melt Antarctica has been pondered for decades. “The problem has been in my head for 35 or so years, but I had never worked with people who had the tools to solve the problem,” says Ken Caldeira, the recent study’s senior author and researcher at Stanford University’s Carnegie Institute of Science. “It was a real pleasure to finally get to address this question.”

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Caldeira and his team utilized an advanced ice sheet model to test the impact various levels of greenhouse gas emissions would have on the icy continent. Under the study’s model, it would only take about 500 years to burn through all of the Earth’s fossil fuels. This massive burning would set the stage for warming and sea level rise to continue over the next several millennia. In the first 1,000 years following the burning of all fossil fuels, global sea levels would rise by 100 feet. Due to the increased presence of greenhouse gases, sea levels would rise an additional 100 feet over the next nine thousand years.

“This kind of sea-level rise would be unprecedented in the history of civilization,” says Ricarda Winkelmann, lead author of the study. Winkelmann says that the warmed water would be more dangerous than air, as it holds its temperature more constantly and would be able to melt the Antarctic ice sheets from the bottom up. Although a 200 foot sea level rise seems apocalyptic, it is an outcome confined to the distant future. However, the melting of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, a similarly earth shattering event, may already be baked into the climate cake.

Via Washington Post

Images via NASA