A new study warning that rapidly melting ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica may push global sea level rise beyond 7.8 feet by 2100 has elicited alarm about the “profound consequences for humanity” and cast doubt on past projections.
“If we see something like that in the next 80 years we are looking at social breakdown on scales that are pretty unimaginable.”
—Jonathan Bamber, lead author
“If we see something like that in the next 80 years we are looking at social breakdown on scales that are pretty unimaginable,” lead author Jonathan Bamber, a professor of physical geography at the U.K.’s University of Bristol, told New Scientist.
The structured expert judgement study, published Monday by the peer-reviewed journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), brought together 22 experts.
Under the experts’ worst case scenario projection—based on global temperatures increasing to 5°C (9°F) above pre-industrial levels by 2100—rising seas would leave about 1.79 million square kilometers (691,123 square miles) underwater and displace up to 187 million people.
Detailing what this would look like on a global scale, BBC News reported:
The PNAS study’s upper level projection is more than double the highest estimate from the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC). That 2013 U.N. analysis, which experts have long criticized as too conservative, concluded that under business-as-usual greenhouse gas emissions, global sea level could rise up to 3.22 feet by the end of this century.
“The IPCC report in 2013 only considered what is ‘likely’ to happen, which in scientific terms means they looked at 17-83 percent of the range of possibilities,” explained BBC News. “This new study looks at a broader range of results, covering 5-95 percent of the estimates.”
The experts who conducted the PNAS study found that sea level will most likely rise 3.6 feet by 2100, but in the final report the authors emphasized that considering the highest possible projection “is crucial for robust decision-making.”
“The experts we assessed found a pretty significant chance of ‘black swan’ outcomes leading to extremely high levels of rise.”
—Robert E. Kopp, co-author
“The central numbers in this study are about a foot higher than the IPCC’s estimates,” study co-author Robert E. Kopp said in a statement. “But the experts we assessed found a pretty significant chance of ‘black swan’ outcomes leading to extremely high levels of rise.”
Kopp is a professor at Rutgers University–New Brunswick and a lead author of the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report, set for publication in 2021. The IPCC released a special report last October that warned the international community had only about 12 years left to prevent climate catastrophe, but that report did not include updated projects for sea level rise.
Climate campaigners responded to the new study with both concern and calls to action:
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“What we decide to do collectively as a species politically, globally, over the next decade,” lead author Bamber told CNN, “is going to determine the future of the next generations in terms of the habitability of the planet and what sort of environment they live in.”