Here’s What Would Happen if All the World’s Fossil Fuels Burned Up at the Same Time

Nice knowing you, Antarctica

Antarctica Ice Sheet
Frank Krahmer/Corbis

If you’re worried about climate change, you’ve probably envisioned a world in which the world’s ice sheets slowly fade as humans exhaust Earth’s remaining reserves of fossil fuels. But what would happen if all of those fuels burned up at the same time?

That’s the question asked by a group of scientists eager to explore the absolute worst-case scenario, reports Reuters’ Alister Doyle. And the results wouldn’t be pretty, Doyle writes: If all of the world’s fossil fuel reserves were burned in a single go, humans could expect sea levels to rise by over 160 feet and the ice sheet that covers Antarctica would disappear.

The study used a model of how ice sheets flow and move to determine what would happen with an input of 10,000 gigatons of carbon. “The currently attainable carbon fuel resources are sufficient to eliminate the Antarctic Ice Sheet,” writes the paper’s authors — but they warn that it would actually take “much lower amounts of cumulative emission” to threaten large parts of the sheet.

Though it would take millennia to destroy the entire ice sheet for good, the paper notes that burning all of Earth’s fossil fuels now could result in a 100-foot rise in sea level within the next 1,000 years beginning in about a century.

Doyle, who notes that a catastrophic thaw would also do away with Greenland’s ice sheet, writes that the results would “inundate cities from New York to Shanghai and change maps of the world with much of the Netherlands, Bangladesh or Florida under water.”

It’s a simple equation, writes Andrew C. Revkin for The New York Times: “Burn it all…lose it all.” Revkin writes that though the study is more thought experiment than actual prediction, it’s a sobering reminder of the long-term consequences of humans’ short-term decisions.

The question of whether Earth’s current fossil fuels could melt the entire ice sheet has plagued the study’s authors for years, writes The Washington Post’s Chelsea Harvey. Co-author Ken Caldeira tells Harvey that “It was a great pleasure to finally get to address this question” — even if the answer is sobering indeed.

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