A new study from climate scientists in Germany suggests that if humans were to burn through the rest of the planet's fossil fuel reserves, glaciers at the poles of the Earth would be a thing of the past.
There are still a ton of fossil fuels below the surface of the Earth, and a new study suggests that they may be better off staying put. According to a report from Reuters, research from the Potsdam institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany has shown that burning through the planet’s available reserves would produce enough atmospheric warming to wipe the Antarctic ice sheets off the face of the Earth.
According to Ricarda Winkelmann, the study’s lead author burning through the fossil fuel within humans’ reach would melt the ice at the South Pole, leading to a sea level rise of up to 50 meters over the next few thousands of years.
This warming would affect other glacial regions, like Greenland and the Arctic Circle in the Northern Hemisphere. Based on the current rate of climate change, these regions have become increasingly unstable in recent years, calving thousands of tons of ice directly into the ocean.
Instability in these ice sheets is a telltale sign that they are being affected by rising temperatures. Winkelmann estimates that if emissions from oil, coal, and natural gas continue at current levels, it would take about 80 years to completely destabilize the West Antarctic ice sheet. This would only use up about 8 percent of available fossil fuel reserves.
The U.N.’s climate chief, Christiana Figueres, said last week that in order to limit global warming to the recommended level of 2 degrees Celsius over preindustrial temperatures, at least two-thirds of all fossil fuel reserves must remain in the ground.
2 degrees may not sound like enough to melt an entire continental ice sheet, but it is important to remember that much of the additional solar energy trapped by greenhouse gases is eventually absorbed by the ocean. The warmer waters from below melt glaciers much faster than ambient air, and pose the greatest threat to polar and glacial regions as they increase in temperature.