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Tipping point

Tipping point Maria Martin/PIK
04 Nov
The long-term impact on Antarctica of burning the world’s remaining fossil fuel reserves is found to be strikingly dramatic

While the majority of previous studies on glacial melt in Antarctica have focused on the rapidly warming western peninsula, a recent study has turned attention to the rest of the continent.

‘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,’ says Anders Levermann of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. ‘We need to avoid a similar tipping in East Antarctica.’

The study predicts the extent of Antarctic melt which would occur under different fossil fuel-burning scenarios over 10,000 years. The most dramatic of these envisages the release of 10,000 gigatons of carbon by burning all known reserves, therefore almost entirely eliminating the Antarctic ice sheet and ultimately causing rises in sea level of between 50 to 60 metres.

Even in the most unrestrained scenario of fossil fuel burning, the study doesn’t predict any significant ice loss within this century, with even the West Antarctic ice sheet taking another 60 to 80 years before becoming unstable. However, the consequential rate of sea level rise over 1,000 years could reach 3cm per year, resulting in rises of up to 30m by the end of the millennium, and 60m after 10,000 years.

This article was published in the November 2015 edition of Geographical Magazine.

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