Startling Results from Burning All Fossil Fuels in 250 Years

An article released this weekend in Advances in Science (by Ricarda Winkelmann, Anders Levermann, Andy Ridgwell, and Ken Caldeira) contained a very high tech and current calculation of what would happen to the Antarctic Ice and the sea level if all fossil fuel was to be burned in the next 250 years. The press announced that the conclusion was that all Antarctic ice would be melted in 10,000 years, and raise the sea level 60 meters or 200 feet worldwide. Since much of civilization lives in low lying areas near the coast, this would cause massive relocation and loss of valuable construction in coastal cities. However, it also makes it seem that the problem is thousands of years in the future, which means that we can forget it for now.

Such a reaction was shattered when a real reading of the paper showed that over the next three centuries, the average sea level rise from Antarctica will be 2.7 meters or 8.9 feet per century.  Over the next millennium, the average sea level rise from Antarctica will be 3.6 meters or 12 feet per century.  The melting starts slowly with only a 0.1 meter or 0.3 foot rise from Antarctica over the next century.

However, the extreme temperatures that will occur, and the blocking of carbon uptake by ocean deposition of Carbon, will have severe consequences for the future of mankind.

A strong argument for acting now to limit or require maximum efficiency for fossil fuel burning other than coal, is that any released atmospheric CO2 will remain in the atmosphere adding a warming blanket that warms every hour of every day for the next hundred years. What the climate change model shows is that at the extreme of burning all Carbon sources, the absorption of Carbon by the oceans and deposition of it at the sea floor by plankton will essentially shut down, and the lifetime of Carbon in the atmosphere will have a half life of about 5,000 years. This will be an increase in the effective warming of each CO2 molecule by a factor of 50!

The other alarming result of the climate change model is that the average sea level temperature will rise 20.5 degrees Fahrenheit over the entire earth. Having experienced heat waves of 15 degrees F above average this summer in Spain and Southern California, I can guarantee that nobody wants to live anywhere on earth that is now in a temperate zone. If they did, it would require massive amounts of energy and cost for air conditioning. Furthermore, ask any farmer what that would do to crops, water reservoirs, and animal husbandry, and all present farms would be doomed. Almost everybody in northern latitudes would have to move northward, or southward in the southern hemisphere. Essentially all of the present countries, cities and agricultural areas would be uprooted.

In California we are now in our worst drought and the record year for wildfires. These are some of the auxiliary effect of climate warming. Burning all coal would increase the extreme air pollution in China and India and disrupt all manufacturing and energy in their cities, as well as extremely increasing asthma and shortening lives.

The effects in the last three paragraphs are just from the climate model, and do not even involve the detailed modeling of Antarctic ice melting.

At present the world is burning 10 Gigatons of Carbon (GtC) per year,  or 10 Billion tons of Carbon per year.  The total fossil fuel resources are estimated to be 10,000 GtC.   The model for full fossil fuel burning has the rate of burning rising to about 70 GtC per year in about 125 years, and being almost completed in 250 years.  If only a fraction of the total carbon is burned, the peak rate and duration are shortened.  The peak temperatures occur essentially after most of the Carbon is burned.  If all the Carbon is burned, the peak warming is 11.4 degrees C, or 20.5 degrees F.  If half of the Carbon is burned (5,000 GtC), the peak temperature is  8.2 degrees C, or 14.8 degrees F.  If a quarter of the Carbon is burned (2,500 GtC), the peak temperature is 5.5 degrees C, or 9.9 degrees F.  If an eighth of the Carbon is burned (1250 GtC), the peak temperature is 3.6 degrees C or 6.5 degrees F.  To avoid exceeding the 2 degrees C limit since pre-industrial times (0.7 degrees C is already attained), the future emissions can only be 600 GtC, or 60 more years at the present rate. That is only a sixteenth of all the Carbon resources.

While the future 250 years from now may seem far off, we must remember that the Founding Fathers of the United States came from Europe which had 2500 years of recorded history.  They believed in a Bible which was partly that old and partly 1800 years old.  They were establishing a new country on a continent that already had three hundred years of European exploration and settlement.  They had an outlook for the United States that looked forward on these time spans of hundreds to thousands of years.  We have to preserve and push forward such a future long term outlook.


About Dennis SILVERMAN

I am a retired Professor of Physics and Astronomy at U C Irvine. For a decade I have been active in learning about energy and the environment, and in lecturing and attending classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) at UC Irvine.
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