According to an international team of researchers, if we burn the Earth’s remaining fossil fuels we could see a 50 or 60 meter rise in sea levels due to the total loss of Antarctic ice. That’s somewhere between 150 and 200 feet, which is enough to wiped out most coastal cities, which include many of the world’s largest urban centers.
There are a lot of factors that come into play when discussing Antarctic ice melt. As the researchers pointed out though, it’s easier to hypothesize that an ice cube will melt in a warming room, rather than how long it will take. According to the team’s study though, that sea rise would come by the end of the millennium.
That may seem like we have a long time to deal with the problem, but we really don’t. They estimate that 60 to 80 years of contemporary emissions levels could destabilize both the West and East Antarctic ice sheets. That’s only about 6% to 8% of the remaining fossil fuels, but CO2 stays in the atmosphere for a very long time. Millennia long, in fact.
If we manage to keep climate change under the 2°C goal that policy makers have set for this century, then ice melt should only raise sea levels by only a few meters. That’s still manageable, albeit with more work for some locations.
A 200-foot increase in sea levels over 1,000 years sounds pretty slow, but it’s not like it will all happen at once. It’ll be a gradual process of cities and other communities finding ways to deal with slowly increasing sea levels.
Eventually though, those communities will be gone, and some of our most significant achievements as humans will be gone with them. Our ancestors built their cities on coasts so they could have access to the sea for trade and food. They probably didn’t expect we’d pollute the atmosphere so much that those very cities would drown.