If Climate Change Melts Greenland's Ice Sheet, Will South Florida Drown?

Categories: Environment
A giant sheet of ice that covers most of ​Greenland might be a serious problem for South Florida in a few hundred or few thousand years, give or take. 

A new study in Nature Climate Change warns that a 1.6 degree Celsius jump in global temperatures could completely melt Greenland's ice sheet. 

That's terrible because we're talking about ice that's on land -- not in the ocean -- meaning that sea levels could rise dramatically if the sheet were to vanish. 

Bloomberg reports that "the United Nations estimates the Greenland ice sheet contains enough water to raise global sea levels by about seven meters (23 feet), threatening coastal cities from New York to London and Bangkok. Even so, the researchers said it could take thousands of years for the entire sheet to melt."

Frederick Bloetscher, an engineering professor at Florida Atlantic University, tells New Times that a mere three-foot rise in global sea levels would permanently flood entire areas of western Broward County.

"The issue for us is that as you go west from the coast, you're going downhill once you cross Dixie Highway," Bloetscher says. "What everyone needs to understand is that the whole drainage system is gravity-based, and that's particularly critical for Southern Broward and Miami-Dade."

Bloetscher explains that there are two main factors behind rising sea levels. The first is thermal expansion. "As water gets warmer, it expands," Bloetscher says. "It's basic physics."

The other is melting terrestrial ice, which relates to the Greenland dilemma. "It's not water in the ocean; it's water on land," he says. "As it goes into the ocean, it's going to accelerate sea-level rise."

Bloetscher says rising sea levels are going to be a critical problem in South Florida's future, especially if Greenland's ice sheet melts. 

"The Greenland ice sheet is known, understood, and studied," he says. "Yes, Greenland will affect us."

Several reports have been released in the past year warning that Broward is endangered by even slight increases in sea level. In October, Bloetscher and colleagues from FAU issued a paper suggesting that higher sea levels would lead to a host of problems, including widespread septic tank malfunctions, saltwater contamination, and, of course, flooding.

The Broward County Natural Resources Planning and Management Division released its own report estimating that Fort Lauderdale could be feeling the effects of higher sea levels as early as 2040 and that significant flooding could occur by 2075. 

Most recently, the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Compact released a draft plan on steps we should take to mitigate the chances of Florida becoming a real-life WaterWorld

Even if Greenland's ice sheet remains frozen, the threat of rising levels doesn't seem to be going anywhere. 

"We have the longest continuous record in Key West that absolutely shows a long-term upward trend in sea levels," Bloetscher says. "What we want to do is plan to protect property from sea-level rise. If we wait until it's already here, it'll be too late."

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The answer to the question "If Climate Change Melts Greenland's Ice Sheets, Will South Florida Drown?" is certainly "yes".  IF the ice sheets melt, all land currently less than about 20 feet above sea level will be underwater, including much of South Florida, where I was born.

So the big question is "Will Climate Change Melt The Ice Sheets?"  This one is a little tougher to answer, but there certainly is ample precidence for this.  We know that during the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM) about 55 million years ago, there was a large outgassing of CO2, which is correllated with the collision of the Greenland plate with the European plate. This is believed to have trapped carbon deposits (coal, oil, etc) between the 2 plates, where it was heated by volcanoes and released to the atmosphere as CO2. CO2 levels spiked and the global temperature increased to the point where both Greenland and Antarctica were iceless.  Sea levels were much higher then.  If we continue on the path we are currently on, we will achieve the same levels of CO2 that were present during the PETM, and we can reasonably expect that a similar melting will occurr, although we do not know with any certainty what the rate of melting will be.

Sadly, I'm of the opinion that we will continue to burn fossil carbon for some time, and will commit the ice sheets to slowly melt, which will soon be an irreversible process.  Fortunately for me, I will not live to see the result, but I worry for my kids, grandkids and later decendents (if any).

For those of you who are interested, there is a good overview of the PETM in Wikipedia - just Google "PETM Wiki" and read for yourself.  There are also many detailed technical papers for those who are interested - just let me know and I will be happy to post links to these if you want.

Ron Clark
Ron Clark

As water warms it also evaporates, I didn't see any figures taking this into account in the hypotheses. Besides Al Gore bought water front property in CA and I think if he bought there it will not really effect us. I will put my money on Al.

Michael A. Lewis
Michael A. Lewis

If there were a unicorn on the far side of the moon, would it leave any footprints?

It would take 7,000 years to melt the ice on Greenland. The next glacial period will begin in 1,000 to 2,000 years.

Do the maths. 


Ron - you are absolutely correct.  In fact, by actual measurement the global average atmosphere is now about 4% higher in water vapor than it was decades ago.  This has the effect of causing a "non-linear" warming effect, because water vapor is a greenhouse gas, like CO2.  So an increase in CO2 causes a little warming, which causes an increase in H2O, which causes a little more warming, etc. etc., until a new equilibrium is reached.

This effect is taken into account in every global warming model.

Every reasonable model of sea-level rise predicts that it will take a long time to become a problem for most of the US - maybe a foot or 2 by the year 2100.  If Al's new house is more than a couple of feet above sea level today, he has nothing to worry about, nor do his kids and grandkids.

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