Mount Herschel – Cape Hallet, Antarctica. Credit: Jim Trodel

A team of researchers has developed a model of what should be regarded as an absolute worst case climate scenario.

The model says that if we burn all fossil fuels remaining on Earth, the Antarctic Ice would melt and the sea level would rise 58 meters.

If coal is estimated as a fossil fuel equivalent, we have around 10,000 billion tons of coal still buried beneath our feet. This is an enormous amount, illuminated by the fact that we have burned about 550 billion tons from the beginning of the industrial revolution until today.

If we would burn all remaining 10,000 billion tons of fossil fuels, and if the resulting emissions would heat the Earth proportionate to what emissions do today (not including potential feedback effects) the mean temperature on Earth would go up by 10 degrees Celsius.

With such a temperature rise, almost all of the ice on the Antarctic continent would melt and that water, combined with that from Greenland and glaciers around the world, would raise the global sea level by 58 meters.

Such an extreme sea level rise would drown most of the coastal cities of today, according to the researchers. And in fact, large regions of the Earth would be on the bottom of the ocean.

This process would take several thousands of years, though. As the model’s farthest scenario extends 10,000 years into the future.

The team of four researchers from Germany, the UK, and the US constructed the model using algorithms in a computer simulation with data compiled by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Their research has resulted in a scientific paper Combustion of available fossil fuel resources sufficient to eliminate the Antarctic Ice Sheet published in the journal Science Advances.

This scenario is indeed hypothetical at its core and extremely unlikely. As we need to burn 20 times the amount of fossil fuels we have done until today. And the researchers points out that the paper is not intended as a forecast, more so an answer to the question “what happens”, according to the researchers.

Combustion of available fossil fuel resources sufficient to eliminate the Antarctic Ice Sheet
IPPC Climate Change 2014 Synthesis Report