According to the World Economic Forum, up to 410 million people could be at risk from coastal flooding in the next 100 years as climate change continues to cause global sea levels to rise.


Melting ice sheets are a major contributor to rising sea levels but it is notoriously difficult to predict their precise effect as the physics governing their behaviour is extremely complex.

Now, a team of researchers from the IBS Center for Climate Physics in Busan, South Korea, have produced a computer simulation that models the complex interplay between ice sheets, icebergs, the oceans and the atmosphere for the first time.

The model predicts that melting ice sheets in West Antarctica and Greenland could create a runaway effect in sea level rises that can only be averted if the world reaches net zero carbon emissions before 2060.

“If we miss this emission goal, the ice sheets will disintegrate and melt at an accelerated pace, according to our calculations. If we don’t take any action, retreating ice sheets would continue to increase sea level by at least 100cm within the next 130 years. This would be on top of other contributions, such as the thermal expansion of ocean water,” said co-researcher Prof Axel Timmermann, Director of the IBS Center for Climate Physics.

The study highlights the imminent need for more sophisticated supercomputer-based climate models that are capable of taking into account all of the disparate components that contribute to sea level rise, the researchers say.

“One of the key challenges in simulating ice sheets is that even small-scale processes can play a crucial role in the large-scale response of an ice sheet and for the corresponding sea-level projections,” said Timmermann.

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Jason Goodyer
Jason GoodyerCommissioning editor, BBC Science Focus

Jason is the commissioning editor for BBC Science Focus. He holds an MSc in physics and was named Section Editor of the Year by the British Society of Magazine Editors in 2019. He has been reporting on science and technology for more than a decade. During this time, he's walked the tunnels of the Large Hadron Collider, watched Stephen Hawking deliver his Reith Lecture on Black Holes and reported on everything from simulation universes to dancing cockatoos. He looks after the magazine’s and website’s news sections and makes regular appearances on the Instant Genius Podcast.