Melting Antarctica Could Drown Coasts

Seas levels could rise as fast as three centimeters a year if fossil fuel consumption continues at its present rate. Such increases would amount to ten times the current rise of roughly three millimeters annually. But Antarctica's vast ice sheets may substantially melt and accelerate the rise of seawaters should the burning of fossil fuel continue unabated, according to new computer simulations of climate change’s future impact.

Scientists had previously thought that East Antarctica's massive ice sheets were relatively safe, requiring thousands of years to pass before warming global temperatures would begin to melt them. But the new simulations, published in Science Advances on September 11, suggest Antarctica's ice is much more vulnerable—and thus sea level rise could be a lot worse.

"Humanity can indeed melt all of Antarctica's ice, if we were to burn all of the fossil fuels," says Ricarda Winkelmann, a physicist by training who now works on computer models at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. "What we do today by emitting greenhouse gases within just a few decades triggers changes that will be felt by many, many generations to come."

For years, scientists have feared the collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet—a vast swath of ice that could unleash a slow but unstoppable 10-foot rise in sea levels if it melted. So here is today's terrible news: we now know the ice sheet is melting. And there's pretty much nothing we can do to about it. Ice is melting in the western Antarctic at an unstoppable pace, scientists said Monday, warning that the discovery holds major consequences for global sea level rise in the coming decades. The speedy melting means that prior calculations of sea level rise worldwide made by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change will have to be adjusted upwards, scientists told reporters.

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