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Antarctica will melt if remaining fossil fuels are burnt


A new study undertaken by an international team including Carnegie's Ken Caldeira has shown that if the planet's remaining fossil fuel resources were burned, it would melt Antarctica and lead to a 50- or 60-meter (160 to 200 foot) rise in sea level, the Market Business reports.

The study is published in Science Advances.

The rise in the sea level would put many highly populated areas, including New York City and Washington, DC under risk. As a result, it would put about a billion lives in danger.

"Our findings show that if we do not want to melt Antarctica, we can't keep taking fossil fuel carbon out of the ground and just dumping it into the atmosphere as CO2 like we've been doing," Caldeira said, according to Market Business.

"Most previous studies of Antarctic have focused on loss of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. Our study demonstrates that burning coal, oil, and gas also risks loss of the much larger East Antarctic Ice Sheet."

Caldeira started this project with lead author Ricarda Winkelmann while she was a Visiting Investigator at the Carnegie Institution for Science. The other members of the team include co-author Anders Levermann and co-author Andy Ridgwell

The future of Antarctica's ice sheet will depend upon greenhouse gas-caused atmospheric warming, oceanic warming and the counteracting effects of additional snowfall.

This is the first study to model the impact of effects of fossil fuel burning on the Antarctic ice sheet.

"It is much easier to predict that an ice cube in a warming room is going to melt eventually than it is to say precisely how quickly it will vanish," Winkelmann said.

The team used the model to study the impact on the ice sheet ice sheet over the next 10,000 years. The study revealed that the West Antarctic ice sheet would become unstable if carbon emissions continue at current levels for the next 60 to 80 years.

"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 and New York as our future heritage, we need to avoid a tipping in East Antarctica," Levermann said.

Nature World Report reports that the mean annual air temperature of the Antarctic Peninsula has increased by nearly 3°C in the region in the last 50 years.

The team found that if global warming did not exceed 2 degree Celsius target, Antarctic melting would cause sea levels to rise only a few meters and remain manageable.

"If we don't stop dumping our waste CO2 into the sky, land that is now home to more than a billion people will one day be underwater," Caldeira said.

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