Ice sheets are melting far faster than we thought — in a worst-case climate breakdown, coastal cities like New York and Shanghai would be swamped

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Sea ice in the frozen Disko Bay with icebergs. Tow
Photo by: Martin Zwick/REDA&CO/UIG via Getty Images
  • Greenhouse-gas emissions are trapping heat on the planet and warming the oceans, causing unprecedented sea-level rise and coastal flooding around the globe.
  • Greenland's ice sheet is melting six times faster than it was in the 1980s, while the average annual Antarctic ice melt has jumped from 40 billion tons to 252 billion tons.
  • According to a new study, previous estimates from the United Nations about expected sea-level rise due to melting ice sheets were extremely conservative.
  • If emissions continue unabated, global sea levels will rise by 1,9 metres by 2100 from melting ice alone, displacing 187 million people in coastal cities like New York and Shanghai.
  • For more stories, go

The Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets are melting.

Scientists have known this for years, but they're only now realising how quickly that melting is happening.

Greenland's ice is melting six times faster now than it was four decades ago; the ice sheet is sloughing off an average of 286 billion tons of ice per year.

In the 1980s, Antarctica lost 40 billion tons of ice annually. In the last decade, that number jumped to an average of 252 billion tons per year.

A new study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reports that the sea-level rise from this accelerated melting could have "have profound consequences for humanity."

The researchers found that, in the worst-case scenario - in which the planet heats up by 5 degrees Celsius in the next 80 years - melted ice could raise sea levels worldwide could by more than 1,9 metres.

The water would swamp major coastal cities like New York and Shanghai, displacing up to 187 million people by 2100, the authors reported.

Underestimating sea-level rise

Roughly 1.7 million square kilometres in size, the Greenland ice sheet covers an area almost three times that of Texas. Together with Antarctica's ice sheet, it contains more than 99% of the world's fresh water, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center.

Most of that water is frozen in masses of ice and snow that can be up to 3,000 metres thick. But as human activity sends more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, the oceans absorb 93% excess heat those gases trap. The warmer air and water is leading ice sheets to melt at unprecedented rates.

In 2013, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicted that sea levels would rise by up to 38.5 inches - just over 0.9 metres - by 2100 if carbon emissions continue to rise unabated.

The predictions in this new study are more than double the UN's 2013 estimate.

While the chances of a worst-case scenario coming to pass are only estimated at around 5%, the study authors still reported it was "plausible" that global oceans would indeed rise 1,9 metres by the year 2100.

Higher sea levels could create 187 million climate refugees

If sea levels did really rise by 1,9 metres, that could result in a loss of over 1 million square kilometres of land, the authors of the new report said. That's an area larger than France, Germany, Spain, and the UK combined.

In that case, major coastal cities like London, New York, and Shanghai would be threatened by extreme flooding. Small Pacific island nations like Vanuatu would be rendered uninhabitable or disappear entirely. The study authors also said a lot of the lost land would be in "critical regions of food production" - places like the Nile River delta in Africa, according to the BBC.

In total, up to 2.5% of the world's current population could be displaced from their homes, the researchers added.

"To put this into perspective, the Syrian refugee crisis resulted in about a million refugees coming into Europe," lead author of the new study Jonathan Bamber told the BBC. "That is about 200 times smaller than the number of people who would be displaced in a 2-meter sea-level rise."

Bamber told CNN that the displacement of that many people around the world would "likely result in serious social upheaval."

"It really is pretty grim," he added.

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