This doesn't happen often, but title of the study itself is more mind-blowing than any lead we could write. So here it is:
"Combustion of available fossil fuel resources sufficient to eliminate the Antarctic Ice Sheet."
That's right. If every bit of the oil, coal and natural gas that's believed to be in the ground were used up over the next 500 years, we would emit about 10,000 gigatons of carbon. That would cause the southernmost continent - which became frozen about 12.8 million years ago - to thaw out like a TV dinner in your microwave.
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"Unabated carbon emissions thus threaten the Antarctic Ice Sheet in its entirety with associated sea-level rise that far exceeds that of all other possible sources," concluded the study in Science Advances, whose lead author is Stanford University researcher Ken Caldeira.
Unlike the frost on your Salisbury steak and mashed potatoes, we're talking about a whole lot of H20. According to the National Snow and Ice Center, the Antarctic ice sheet extends almost for 5.4 million square miles, roughly the area of the lower 48 state and Mexico combined. It contains 7.2 million cubic miles of ice.
Melt it all, and you'd raise global sea level by about 200 feet.
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If there's a saving grace, it's that such a complete thaw would take place over thousands of years, long after humanity's orgy of fossil fuel consumption had concluded. That why New York Times environmental reporter Andrew Revkin describes the study as "far more a thought experiment than a prediction," and notes that even China, a voracious consumer of coal, is aggressively working to stop the increase in its carbon output by developing more solar and wind energy.
But even if humans ultimately don't melt all of the Antarctic ice covering, we're already done a lot of damage to it. According to NSIC, Antarctica's land ice hasn't been melting as rapidly as the Greenland ice sheet in the Northern Hemisphere, which combines with it to lock up about 99 percent of the freshwater ice on the planet. But the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, which contains enough ice to raise global sea levels by four feet, is now considered unstable.
As the thick ice on the continent melts, paradoxically, the cool fresh water has the effect of insulting thinner offshore ice to increase, causing it to increase, according to a 2013 study published in Nature Geoscience.