The Earth hasn’t always been partially covered with ice. During the Eocene Epoch 50 million years ago, the planet was actually ice-free. So what happens if the glaciers melt today? What about the polar ice caps? What would actually happen if all that ice was gone? How would it change the world?
Scientists have a pretty good idea of how glaciers melting would change the world because, well, they already are! The effects of glaciers melting and polar ice caps dwindling is easy enough to observe and study, and scientists have been doing so for a long time. The state of the planet if all the ice melted is fun to speculate about but likely wouldn’t happen for thousands and thousands of years (if it happens at all). This list includes some of the impacts that such a thaw would have on the world today.
Florida Would Be F*cked
If all the glaciers and ice caps melted, Florida would be gone forever, buried under the resulting 216-foot rise of ocean water (some say it could be even worse). America would get a sex change, basically. It’s by far the most dramatic change to the map of the lower 48 theorized by National Geographic in their 2013 feature “If All the Ice Melted,” and that’s saying a lot:
The entire Atlantic seaboard would be underwater, as well, and the Gulf Coast would be (soggy) toast. All coastal cities, essentially, would get the Waterworld treatment, including London, New York, and Tokyo.
A Day Would Be About 2/3 of a Second Longer
Steven Dutch with the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay estimates that melting the polar ice caps would add 2/3 of a second to our days. Woohoo! As Dutch wryly observes, that would give us more time to “pile sandbags along the coasts.”
How would melting ice caps lengthen our days? Dutch “shows his work” here, but the basic idea is that “redistributing” all of that water would affect the Earth’s so-called “moment of inertia” in such a way that the Earth’s rotation would slow down slightly (very slightly). Dutch admits that this exercise might even be overestimating things a bit: all the ice below sea level, after all, would just melt and be replaced by sea water (much like melted ice in a drink doesn’t cause it to overflow).
There Could Be Massive Earthquakes
It’s not just all about rising water: there’s a whole host of other Biblical catastrophes in store for us if the ice caps melted. Melting the ice that covers Antarctica could cause massive earthquakes worldwide, for example, according to Anthony Fordham, editor of Popular Science Australia, in his Idiot’s Guides: Science Mysteries Explained. Fordham’s idiot-friendly analogy is a Ping-Pong ball with a dent in it. The Earth is the ball and the dent is the pressure caused by the enormous sheet of ice that’s currently on top of Antarctica. Remove the ice and the crust of the Earth would pop out, causing intense seismic activity all over the globe.
That’s not all: this shake-up could cause active volcanoes in Antarctica to erupt, as well.
There Could Be Civil Unrest and War
This one’s a bit more theoretical, but it’s a solid point: Dr. Hal Wanless from the University of Miami says the rising floodwaters could cause large parts of civilization to basically stop functioning. “We’re going to see civil unrest, war. You just wonder how—or if—civilization will function,” he told National Geographic in 2013. Hypothetically, instantaneous melting of the polar ice caps would put large cities like Miami and London underwater, causing a massive refugee problem.
Even in a more realistic scenario, Wanless imagines that by the next century, millions of people will have to move due to rising sea levels, and they’ll have to move at roughly the same time, likely causing chaos.
It Could Release Prehistoric Viruses
Biologist Elena Giorgi thinks prehistoric viruses currently trapped in Antarctic ice could be unleashed if the ice sheet were to melt. Giorgi writes at The Huffington Post that researchers have already discovered a relatively “giant” prehistoric virus they named “pithovirus” in Siberian permafrost and hypothesized that there could be more pathogens like it hiding in the Antarctic ice.
It’s just a theory, but the “pithovirus” does have enough similarities to present-day viruses to make you wonder what nasty stuff could be hiding down there.
Polar Bears Would Be F*cked
If the Arctic ice at the top of the globe vanishes, the polar bears that reign as the top predator up there will die off, according to Alun Anderson in his book After the Ice: Life, Death and Geopolitics in the New Arctic. Anderson says that the Arctic will, in fact, be mainly open ocean by 2050, and the “killer whale living in open water will be the symbol of the Arctic, replacing a bear on ice.”
Anderson also says that walruses would be “decimated,” considering how the “mother has the pups on the ice,” but they “won’t disappear completely.”
The Earth Would Be Hotter
Regardless of how or when the ice caps melt, losing them would lead to a warmer planet due to something called the albedo effect. All that white ice reflects sunlight back into the atmosphere. The open water that would replace it at the North Pole, for example, would do a much crappier job at this; the water actually absorbs almost all of the radiation that falls on it.
The result would be a much warmer planet: Cambridge Professor Peter Wadhams told the BBC in 2012 that the “missing” ice at that time was warming the globe “equivalent to about 20 years of additional CO2 being added by man.”
Weather Would Get Weird
Higher Arctic temperatures following the massive thaw would make weather pretty funky. The west-to-east flow of the jet stream, for example, could slow down considerably, which is a big deal because that flow controls how storms form and move. We’d be looking at more persistent or “stuck” weather conditions with longer periods of rain or snow storms.
And it’s not just about precipitation: in the summer, longer droughts and heat waves would be examples of these persistent conditions.
There Would Be New ‘Trans-Arctic’ Shipping Routes
It’s not all doom-and-gloom: the ice caps melting would also lead to new shipping routes linking the Atlantic and Pacific. It could actually happen on a smaller scale in our lifetime: Ohio State University researchers estimate that by 2050, “common open-water ships” will have an easier time crossing the Arctic in the warmer months, while bigger “ice-strengthened ships” will have “robust new routes” available to them.
It’s obvious how this could affect global trade, but there’s also a downside: the International Maritime Organization, the researchers warn, would have a lot of work to do ensuring “adequate environmental protections, vessel safety standards, and search-and-rescue capability for this unique and challenging polar ecosystem.”
Infrastructure Near the Poles Would Crumble
If all of the world’s ice caps and glaciers melted, the permafrost would thaw as well, causing a lot of infrastructure to buckle and crumble. It’s already happening in Alaska, according to Cathleen Kelly with the Center for American Progress. Kelly writes that the permafrost is “sinking unevenly, causing highways, pipelines, railroads, runways, and other infrastructure to buckle.”
It’s not cheap to fix, either: the thaw means this infrastructure will cost 10 percent to 20 percent more to maintain through 2034.
An Oil and Gas Bonanza Would Likely Be Exploited
Shell famously tried to drill for oil in the Arctic in 2015, but gave up “for the foreseeable future,” losing billions of dollars. What stopped them? A number of factors, including “significant regulatory restrictions” from the government, but also all of that damned ice. Severe winter weather and “the dangers of drifting ice” interfered with their attempts.
So what if all that ice was out of the way? Shell and other oil companies would have one less obstacle in their efforts to exploit the “indication of oil and gas” they discovered in 2015.
The Inuit Would Be F*cked
The Inuit people would have to change their entire way of life if the ice caps melted. One Canadian Inuit spokesman, Jose A. Kusugak, says that they already face “the possibility of having to completely reinvent what it means to be Inuit,” considering the current “warming Arctic.” Melting all of the ice would do a lot more than just alter their millennia-old traditions: it would also displace them, moving them to warmer climates and away from the Arctic landscape that “their cultural identity depends on,” according to researcher Dr. Lori Lambert.
Kusugak says that whatever new way of life the Inuit will have to adopt in the future, “it will not be an uninterrupted continuation of the traditional ways.” In Qaataak, Greenland, the Inuit even say, “Without the ice, we are nothing.”