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10 Ways the World Would Radically Change if Antarctica Melted

by Selme Angulo
fact checked by Darci Heikkinen

Scientists believe the melting of all the ice in Antarctica is no longer a far-away possibility but a coming certainty. The magnitude of this event would be staggering. The Antarctica ice sheet covers an area of approximately 14 million square miles (36.3 million square kilometers)—equivalent to the combined land area of the U.S. and Mexico. When the ice’s depth is considered, the total volume in Antarctica is approximately 7.2 million cubic miles (30 million cubic kilometers).

That ice has been packed in for eons. Over thousands of years, more and more ice has frozen on top. But industrialization has released greenhouse gas, and human activity has been brutal. Now, some scientists expect it to melt by 2060. To stop it, drastic action must be taken to reduce worldwide emissions. And if carbon emissions can’t be cut, a large-scale melting would be catastrophic.

Some of the consequences are obvious: rising sea levels and severe impacts on global climate and ecosystems. But other consequences of a potential ice melt apocalypse are just as deadly, too. In this list, you’ll learn about ten shocking things that could happen to the world if Antarctica’s ice melts in the next few decades.

Related: 10 Conspiracy Theories About Antarctica

10 Gravity Would Radically Shift

Scientists measure how quickly crucial Antarctica glacier is melting

While it is clear that the melting of Antarctica’s ice would cause sea levels to rise, the process is more complex than simply adding that volume of newly-melted water to the oceans. According to data scientists, other downstream (pun intended) consequences would occur, too.

For one, the disappearance of the ice will most likely result in a shift in gravity. That alteration will cause some areas of land to expand and rise. This will mitigate the impact of the sea level rise, but it will still have other significant consequences. The exact effects on global sea levels and regional land movement are complex and not fully understood. However, scientists are concerned about the radical change. It would be a sudden and shocking jolt to Earth’s delicate ecosystem balance.

It turns out scientists have been studying this for decades. In 1875, researcher James Croll argued the melting of Antarctica’s ice would result in a very uneven sea rise. Scientists now know it as a “gravity effect.” Croll found sea levels near Antarctica would rise much less than the worldwide average. Meanwhile, the northern hemisphere would experience a sea level rise up to a third above the average. Subsequent calculations by other mathematicians have refined our understanding of the regional effects of melting ice on sea levels.

Still, the principle remains the same: Melting ice causes a shift in gravity that affects sea levels differently in various parts of the world. For example, ice melt in Greenland would actually create lower sea levels near that land mass and higher levels further south. These unequal distributions would make it difficult to safely move large populations of people inland away from rising tides, greatly exacerbating the issue.[1]

9 Earth’s Axis Would Shift Dangerously

Climate Change Is Literally Shifting Earth’s Axis | Mashable Explains

The earth’s axis doesn’t just rotate seamlessly. It also wobbles slightly due to the distribution of mass across the globe. Between 1899 and 2018, the Earth’s axis shifted by approximately 34 feet (10.4 meters) due to various environmental and man-made factors. But melting ice is already a significant part of that problem.

In fact, scientists estimate that more than half of this shift was caused by the melting of ice. In turn, gravity has been altered by the ice melt. Land masses have expanded and contracted. The sum of these changes has altered Earth’s rotation. This process is not fully understood yet. But it is clear the melting of ice has a significant effect on the Earth’s axis. Any changes would then be felt even more.

Earth’s axis and the melting of ice are two phenomena that have been studied for a long time. Unfortunately, the extent to which they are connected is not fully understood. While melting ice can contribute to the movement of Earth’s axis, there are other factors, such as the movement of Earth’s mantle, that also play a role. However, it is not necessary for all of Antarctica’s ice to melt in order for significant consequences to occur.

According to paleoclimatologists, the melting of ice can create a feedback loop of change. In it, the movement of the earth’s axis exposes the poles to shifting warm-water currents, which in turn can accelerate the melting of ice. Once ice melt begins, then, it becomes far more difficult to slow down or reverse. This process can have significant impacts on global climate and sea levels. The world is already seeing some of that, of course. But scientists are very worried it will only get worse as the melt rate gets faster.[2]

8 A Day Is Now How Long?

Why Is Earth Spinning Faster? | Space Mysteries | BBC Earth Science

The melting of all the ice in Antarctica would have complex and interconnected effects on Earth’s systems, making it difficult to predict exactly what would happen. However, researchers do know that this event would affect the length of a day. The Earth’s rotation, as measured by satellites and astronomical methods, has undergone modest but noticeable changes due to the melting glaciers and the influx of meltwater into the oceans.

This “polar wander” process is driven by a lot of different factors—and climate change is one. “Because glaciers are at high latitudes, when they melt, they redistribute water from these high latitudes toward lower latitudes,” Harvard University geophysicist Jerry Mitrovica told Reuters in 2015. “Like a figure skater who moves his or her arms away from their body, this acts to slow the rotation rate of the Earth.”

Thus, when the ice melts and its water shifts across the globe, that causes Earth to spin noticeably faster or slower. As in Mitrovica’s example, it becomes like a figure skater who changes their weight and spin speed by lifting and lowering their arms while spinning on the ice.

As this ice-melting process has been going for decades in earnest, the length of a day has already increased by thousandths of a second. It is unclear how much longer the day would become if all of Antarctica’s ice were to melt, but it could be extremely measurable. Some recent estimates suggest the day could change by as much as 20 seconds in the next few years—and possibly significantly more after that.[3]

7 Massive Coastal Cities Will Disappear

This is what sea level rise will do to coastal cities

Antarctica and Greenland hold a lot of ice. If they were to melt, it would have serious consequences for life on Earth. According to National Geographic, if sea levels were to stop rising, many coastal cities like New York, New Orleans, Buenos Aires, Cairo, London, Venice, Shanghai, and Bangladesh would be completely submerged. Other large areas of land would also be severely affected.

This would be a major disaster for the people and ecosystems that depend on these areas. Millions of people would be displaced from their ancestral homelands and longtime communities. In turn, many would suffer secondary health, financial, and geopolitical challenges related to moving away from their land.

If all the ice on Earth were to melt, approximately four-fifths of Australians live in areas today that would quickly be underwater. This would also affect an area in China currently home to around 600 million people. Denmark and the Netherlands would be almost completely submerged. Plus, much of the U.S.’s East Coast, including Florida and the Mississippi Delta, would disappear. Most of Paraguay and a large part of Central America go under.

Some major cities, including San Francisco and Phnom Penh, would become islands. While Africa might experience less land loss, the resulting rise in temperatures would make much of the continent inhospitable. Scientists estimate that about 40% of the world’s population lives in areas that would be affected by this scenario. Clearly, a massive sea level rise would be a disaster for humanity.[4]

6 Animal Populations Would Be Wildly Affected

How Climate Change Affects Penguin Life | Natural World: Penguins of the Antarctic | BBC Earth

Antarctica may seem cold and lifeless, but it is actually a diverse habitat for lots of different animal species. Sea birds, penguins, seals, whales, and other marine animals all thrive throughout the year in that area. However, climate change poses a major threat to many of these species. For example, the population of emperor and Adélie penguins has already declined due to the melting of ice, and their populations would stand to decline even further if things get worse.

For now, the chinstrap penguin has taken their place—but scientists are worried they may not last long, either. If the ice continues to disappear, it could have devastating consequences for all the species that call Antarctica home. Wildlife biologists continue to sound the alarm, but there’s little to be done as sea levels continue to rise.

The loss of sea ice will have devastating consequences for ice-dependent animals such as seals and whales too. For example, were sea ice to melt, it would mean the end of leopard and Ross seals, as well as minke whales. Additionally, the disappearance of sea ice would also have a ripple effect throughout the entire ecosystem.

Smaller creatures like krill and phytoplankton, which are at the bottom of the food chain, would also be affected. These small organisms are a vital source of food for many other species. However, their disappearance would likely set off a chain reaction throughout the ecosystem. The ensuing effect would be devastating to wildlife in regions outside the polar regions too.[5]

5 Water Woes Will Get Worse Across the World

Our drinking water – Is the world drying up? | DW Documentary

It may be tempting for those who live inland to believe that they are unaffected by the melting of Antarctic ice. However, glaciologists warn that this will not be the case. One of the biggest concerns for world populations is the loss of access to clean drinking water.

As sea levels rise, saltwater can infiltrate groundwater reserves further inland. That spread will quickly contaminate sources of drinking water. Furthermore, farm irrigation will be much more difficult due to the high salt content. Even for those who live at an elevation above 250 feet (76.2 meters), their access to well water may be at quick risk of contamination from rising sea levels.

According to NASA, the world has already experienced negative consequences because of this. Freshwater reserves in Antarctica, Greenland, the Russian Arctic, and the Andes have already suffered from the melting of sea ice. This melting and subsequent sea level rise has disrupted the regular freshwater supply for millions of people who depend on glaciers for their water.

As sea levels continue to rise, more people will struggle to find access to clean, safe drinking water. As decades go by, this problem will only get worse. Humans living far inland will begin to feel the pinch of water shortages and water treatment issues. Even in places far from Antarctica and its ice shelves, drinking water problems will become a fact of life.[6]

4 Long-Frozen Microbes Will Be Re-Released into the World

The Mysterious World of Antarctic Bacteria

Antarctica’s melting ice isn’t just going to add a large amount of water to the planet. That would be bad enough. It’s also going to uncover organisms that have been frozen under the ice for millions of years. In 2011, Chilean researchers studied microbes living in the Antarctic ice and learned some surprising things. These microbes, they found, were able to withstand extremely cold temperatures.

The microbes were able to survive in environments with high salt concentrations, extreme acidity and alkalinity, and temperatures as high as 200°F (93.3°C). One of the microbes was found to withstand radiation 5,000 times more intense than any other organism on Earth has ever experienced. All this despite being found 50 feet (15 meters) beneath the ice surface—suggesting these organisms are very strong and potentially deadly.

There is a lack of consensus among researchers as to the purpose of certain microbes. For now, they have not ruled out any theories. But there has been significant debate surrounding the discoveries. Plus, additional samples from other bodies of water seem to have supported the Chilean’s initial findings.

This lake, located beneath a mile of ice in West Antarctica, produced samples unlike anything else on Earth. They were so unique that they were used as evidence for the possibility of life existing in extreme conditions in space. But scientists don’t know what it means for us! It is unclear what the consequences could be when these microbes are released. The most apocalyptic among us wonder whether it could bring mass disease and an end to life as we know it…[7]

3 Speaking of Mass Disease…

Scientists Bring Back Ancient Virus

Antarctic ice has held tiny creatures for around 750,000 years—long before humans existed. If history is any indication, we will almost certainly be vulnerable to the diseases and pathogens these creatures hold. Of course, these microorganisms have long since developed immunity to the pathogens under the frozen ice. But humans won’t be so lucky. Some scientists refer to Antarctica as a “storehouse for genes.” There are likely many deadly diseases in that gene storehouse as well.

The thought of these discoveries sounds like the start of some kind of horror movie or Tom Clancy book! But the consequences could be very, very real. As delicately as possible, biologists have tried unthawing sections of ice and studying the microorganisms within. However, even that has proven difficult and deadly. In fact, some of those fatal incidents have already happened.

In the recent past, thawed bacteria have spread and caused outbreaks of deadly diseases such as smallpox, bubonic plague, and anthrax. The latter pathogen caused a deadly mini-pandemic that swept across Siberia in 2016. Seeing that destruction play out on a lesser level leads scientists to believe this may not be the only time such an unthawing event occurs. Thus, researchers need to continue studying the potential risks of unfrozen bacteria and viruses in order to prevent future outbreaks.

Still, as the earth’s ice melts, we continue to put ourselves at greater risk that long-frozen bacteria will be revived. In one case, scientists uncovered evidence of eight-million-year-old bacteria buried deep in Antarctica’s ice sheet. The potential unexpected consequences that could come from that ancient bacteria could usher in an entirely new—and dangerous—world. Once the ice begins to melt in full, it’ll be difficult to stop the inevitable spread.[8]

2 Antarctica Will Be Greener Than Ever Before

Green Antarctica

Antarctica is usually depicted as a flat, icy desert. But lately, that hasn’t been the case. Glacial scientists have recently revealed the existence of various features beneath the ice using advanced mapping technology. These features include over 400 lakes, including the largest in the world, Lake Vostok. There is also a deep network of rivers and canyons that surpass the Grand Canyon in size and complexity.

If the ice were to melt, these hidden landscapes would become visible to the world. While they have been frozen for eons now, within them are fascinating ecosystems that could flourish in the most extreme scenarios.

In some parts of the Antarctic, that’s already happening. According to new findings, the previously thought barren Antarctic is actually at least partially green. In fact, some areas like Green Island are covered in vibrant mosses. Clearly, that island’s name would seem to be apt. But while the ice-covered continent is still only about 1% green, the presence of hardy mosses beneath the surface suggests it may be getting greener.

A noted glaciologist from the University of Massachusetts named Rob DeConto explained how the greening process works in an interview with the Washington Post. “This is another indicator that Antarctica is moving backward in geologic time,” DeConto said. “Which makes sense, considering atmospheric CO2 levels have already risen to levels that the planet hasn’t seen since the Pliocene, 3 million years ago, when the Antarctic ice sheet was smaller.”[9]

1 Ocean Currents Will Change Course

Is Earth’s Most Important Ocean Current Doomed?

Thermohaline circulation is a global system of deep-ocean currents. It exists through differences in temperature and saltwater salinity. According to the NOAA, it is the wind that drives surface ocean currents. But the poles and the presence of ice play a key role in creating deep-water currents.

This happens when water freezes into sea ice, increasing the saltiness of the water. The denser, saltier water sinks. Then, it is replaced by less salty water from the surface. This process continues in a cycle known as the global conveyor belt. That move alters how ocean water moves around the world. In turn, it alters how schools of fish, groups of sharks, and other ocean life migrates, lives, and survives.

Antarctica specifically plays a vital role in regulating both temperature and salinity in the southern oceans. And melting sea ice would radically alter those oceans forever. If the Antarctic ice sheet were to disappear, it could have negative consequences. Because Antarctica plays such a major role in controlling the circulation of salt through the area, animal species in the southern hemisphere have adapted to that ecosystem.

Millions of years of evolution would be undone as currents alter course. Fishing stocks would move and disappear, leaving mankind at risk of running out of a major global food source. Other changes in saltwater concentration and freshwater spread would change the course of life for countless water-based species.[10]

+ BONUS: Get Ready for Another Ice Age

The Crazy Prediction Of A New Ice Age Coming: Milankovitch Cycles

If the ice in Antarctica were to melt, it would have many consequences. As we’ve already established, one of these would be the loss of animal life across many areas of the world. Many species depend on the ice for their habitat. There would also be major disruptions to global weather patterns, ocean currents, winds, and rainfall. As we now know, the melting ice would significantly alter the balance of salt and freshwater in the world’s oceans.

But other, far worse things could happen, too. For one, ice melt could bring about changes that would eventually lead to another Ice Age. That happened millions of years ago when icebergs broke off from the Antarctic ice sheet and drifted into neighboring oceans before melting. The influx of freshwater from the melting icebergs disrupted the global balance of salt and freshwater. That led to a domino effect of environmental changes.

The ocean absorbs carbon dioxide, which helps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In turn, it decreases global warming. However, this process can also lead to cooling. Researchers studied a sediment core from the ocean floor 500 miles (804.7 kilometers) off the coast of southern Africa. That core included a record of the last 1.6 million years.

Their analysis revealed that during every Ice Age, there were signs of melting Antarctic ice which contributed greatly to the cooling. Today, we face conditions similar to the beginning of that ancient Ice Age when it comes to glacier melt. Of course, Ice Age conditions will take eons to usher into place. So we won’t exactly be around to see it. But the changes being kicked off recently will have incredible consequences for thousands of years to come.[11]

fact checked by Darci Heikkinen