It wonít exactly rip apart our planet or terminate the Universe, but sea level rise may be the most real apocalyptic threat our world faces today. Better learn how to swim! For life in large parts of Europe, Asia and the US is about to become impossible.
Letís do some time traveling. Letís take a ride into the future. Several centuries ahead, that should do the trick. Now, look around.
Youíre shocked by what you see, probably. The US east coast? Itís gone. Florida, Louisiana, the states surrounding the Mississippi? Vanished. In the Great Plains of North America, a vast ocean now stretches out.
In Europe, things arenít any better. Northern France, England, Denmark, Northern Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands are all gone. Spain has almost become an island. Much of the former Soviet Union has turned into swamp. And how about The Baltic States, Egypt, Algeria, Vietnam and Bangladesh? All but vanished. Most of it is sea bottom now.
Think of 80 meters sea level rise worldwide. Sounds wet, doesnít it? Still, this is exactly where the sea level seems to be heading.
Europe at 100 m sea level rise. Paris has become a coastal city; Denmark, the Netherlands, England, the Baltic States and Northern Germany are swallowed by the waves.
For now, we can relax a bit. The vast bodies of water needed to cause the Big Flood are still safely stored away, frozen in ice. Youíll find vast quantities of it on the South Pole, on mountain tops, and in the porous, permafrost soil of Greenland, Alaska and Siberia.
But as we speak, all of that is melting. The North Pole melts so fast it could be gone entirely by the year 2050. The Antarctic Western Tip releases ice much faster than it is replenished. In Greenland, Alaska and Siberia, the permafrost is melting, turning once-frozen soil into wetlands. Everywhere on Earth, glaciers are vanishing and mountain tops are blackening. And all of this water discharges into the sea.
The greenhouse effect is the most likely culprit. Every day, we pump vast amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere, a gas that traps the warmth of sunlight. Consequently, it gets warmer on Earth. Because of this, the sea gets warmer, and expands.
But thatís not everything. The melting ice should be the next big problem on our hands. If Antarctic were to melt completely, it should give us 61 meters of sea level rise worldwide. Greenland should add another 7,2 meters; the glaciers 50 centimeters. That means: bye-bye Britons, farewell France, see you America - and all the rest.
Oh, youíll just move elsewhere, or buy a boat, you say? Well, letís face it. Right now, some 90 percent of all people live near the sea. Even one meter of sea level rise would destroy the US east coast and inundate places like the Maldives, the Netherlands, Bangladesh, the Nile Delta and Florida. Make that 80 meters, and virtually all of the worldís major cities drown. There wonít be enough land left for agriculture. And, ironically, there wonít be enough drinking water: most of it will have gone salt.
USA goes H2O: The US at 100m sea level rise.
And really, weíre up to our neck in this already -- literally. As the world heats up, all kind of evil feedback effects kick in. Take the North Pole. Ok, so it melts. Now thatís no big deal: it should not affect the sea level. But thereís a horrifying catch. The arctic ice also serves as a mirror, bouncing sunlight back into space. No ice, and the dark ocean will absorb the Sunís heat, speeding up the warming of the oceans some more.
Or take Greenland. Should its permafrost melt, global sea levels will go up 7,2 meters worldwide. Now if you think thatís bad news, hear this. The permafrost holds billions of tons of frozen, organic waste, like a big freezer. No permafrost, and the dead stuff will rot. Itís gonna stink, and release vast clouds of methane gas. This should speed up the Big Melt some more, because methane happens to be a very powerful greenhouse gas itself.
So, where will it end? No one knows. One rather disturbing forecast is that the process only stops after the Earth has become a super hot, lifeless world, much like Venus. Outside, youíll be able to melt glass and bake bricks. Life will no longer be possible on our planet.
Fortunately, it doesnít have to end that way. Our planet has gone through stuff like this before. One hundred millions of years ago, back in the age of the dinosaurs, the Earth went Greenhouse too -- probably as a result of geological processes. Back then, our planet was almost completely free of ice. The sea stood actually 200 to 300 meters higher than today! But well, the dinosaurs didnít mind.
And thereís another comfort. Luckily, the poles donít melt overnight. The entire process should take hundreds, if not many thousands of years. There should be plenty of time to build some kind of Noahís Ark.
On the other hand, it isnít exactly reassuring that the Big Melt has started already. Of all the apocalypses youíll find on this site, this is the one happening as we speak. Already, the sea level is 15 centimeters higher than it was 100 years ago. For the next century, it is expected to rise more -- anything between 10 centimeters and 6 meter, scientists argue. Might be a good idea to invest in life rafts!
60-80 meters of global sea level rise
Most of the Antarctic ice is safe for now. It sits high and dry on the continent, where the warm sea water canít reach it. But that doesnít mean it will be there forever. Thereís plenty of evidence the lower lying parts of Antarctica are getting unstable. On the Antarctic Peninsula, 87 percent of the glaciers are in retreat. In the west, about one third of the ice is getting thinner, at some places 3-4 meters per year. Should the western part of Antarctic melt, it would push up the sea level by 4 to 6 meters, flooding 2 billion people.
no effect on sea level
Thereís overwhelming evidence the Arctic is melting at an ever faster pace. Every ten years, its surface shrinks by 8 percent. Scientists expect that from about 2050 on, the north pole will be completely ice-free during the summers. Give that a thought: no more ice on the north pole!
7,2 meters of global sea level rise
Currently, Greenland loses about 220 cubic kilometers of ice each year. Thatís more than twice as much as ten years ago. And in March 2006, NASA satellites revealed dramatic melting of Greenland along the edges. Scientists believe that the melting ice of Greenland has pushed up the sea level several millimeters already -- and thatís just the beginning.
Mountain glaciers and caps
50 centimeters of global sea level rise
In 2003, the world was shocked to hear that a huge chunk of Ďeternalí ice had broken off of iconic Mount Matterhorn. Well, it is just one of many incidents. All over the world, mountain ice is vanishing, leaving behind black rock and soil, and causing local disasters like floods, landslides and economic damage to winter resorts. Each year, the melting mountain glaciers push up the sea about 0,2 to 0,4 millimeters. And there is evidence theyíre melting ever faster.
The Austrian "Glacier" Pasterze, 1875 and 2004
Alaska is among the regions hardest hit by global warming. Already, roads are collapsing, houses are cracking and entire villages are abandoned, as the permafrost they are build on thaws. Local authorities claim over 85 percent of all Alaskan villages have melt problems like mosquito plagues, eroding shorelines and tilting buildings. And thatís just the start: researchers expect that the top 3 meters of permafrost will be gone by the year 2100.
Sinking building in Alaska
5-10 centimeters of global sea level rise
It has been estimated that Canada has lost 650 square kilometers of ice since the 1960s, pushing up the sea levels by 1,45 millimeters. In the meantime, Canada has the same melting problems as Alaska, Siberia and Scandinavia: itís turning into a muddy swamp.
In 2005, researchers shocked the world, when they found that vast stretches of Siberian tundra that were supposed to be frozen had unexpectedly thawed. The big problem is not so much the melting itself -- but the extra CO2 it releases. Siberiaís permafrost is one of the largest CO2-reservoirs on the planet. Thaw it, and youíll see a massive outgassing of greenhouse gases, boosting the warming of the world.
BBC: Earth, Melting in the Heat?
Max Planck Institute: How Much Will The Sea Level Rise?
Astronomy & Earth Sciences: Could Waterworld Really Happen?
New York Times: Climate Data Hint At Irreversible Rise in Seas
Science Special Collection: Breaking the Ice
Flood Maps (this lovely applet simulates up to 14 m sea level rise)
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