What Happens When the Polar Ice Caps Melt?

Polar Ice Caps Split

In this note I seek to explain my theory on what would happen to the sea level if all the ice in the poles melted. My conclusion may surprise you, and it is the result of personal research and critical thinking.

Mainstream science will tell you that climate change is melting the polar ice caps, which would then raise the sea level substantially worldwide. This rise in sea level will apparently be the precursor for major tsunamis and massive tidal waves worldwide. Entire cities would be engulfed, and the world as we know it would be different geographically. Sound reasonable? Well, this completely ignores one basic and important property of water.

The key to my theory is that water in its solid form (ice) is more voluminous than water in its liquid form. When water freezes, it expands. The reverse is true when ice melts. To show that this is true, fill a beaker up to 75%. Put the beaker in the freezer long enough for some, but not all of the water to freeze. Depending on the size of the beaker, this can be from 30 minutes to a couple of hours. When you remove the beaker from the freezer, you should take note of the level of the water. It will be higher than 75%.

The reason the point was made about ice expanding is to show that when it melts, it will take up less space than it does when in solid form. This too, can be demonstrated with a simple experiment. Simply let the water from that same beaker from the previous experiment thaw until all of the ice melts. The water will recede to a level near its original level. It will probably be a little bit lower because some of the water will condensate on the outside of the beaker.

Now that we have some basic science covered, time to get into the more intricate geology of the poles. At the poles, there are two kinds of ice caps: land-based ice and sea-based ice.

Let’s start with the latter. Sea-based ice is ice that floats in the water. It is not attached to a landmass in any way. This ice is already in the water, and individually will not have much of an impact on the sea level.

Land-based ice “grows” from land. It is not included in the sea, and that is the catalyst for the claims of massive sea level rise. When it melts, it would be added to the sea, seeming to raise the sea level. One thing often not taken into account is that the land the ice sits on displaces the surrounding water, giving the appearance of a much higher sea level. This is analogous to filling a pot with water to the very top. Add a potato to the full pot. Notice that the potato will sink, and water will leak out of the pot. If you were to measure this, it would be nearly the volume of the potato. It will be less because the potato will absorb some of the water. (The potato can be subbed for anything that is solid)

There would be a temporary increase in sea level due to the displacement caused by land-based ice. This is due to the way that ice melts. Some of the ice would melt off of the edges of the ice cap. Most of the ice would melt a different way. The ice would crack somewhere away from the edges, and eventually, break off of the ice cap. The broken ice would fall into the ocean, and float. That ice would then become sea-based ice. Once the ice falls into the ocean, it would displace the water around it, increasing the sea level. About six-sevenths (about 85.7%) of ice is submerged in the water because ice isn’t dense enough to sink in water. Water equivalent to 85.7% of the ice would be displaced.

Every year, the ice would go through the process of melting and refreezing. If temperatures and the climates of the poles were to remain the same, this would happen forever. If the climate at the poles continues to get warmer, then the ice would take a while to melt. Despite this, the rate of melting would increase due to the fact that climate change is due to increase.

Let us review what we have discussed thus far. When the ice from the poles melts, particularly the land-based ice, a temporary increase in sea level will occur. This is due to the displacement of the water caused by the intruding ice. Once this ice melts, then it will take up less space, and cease to displace water. This will have a negative net effect on the sea level.

There is one more major component to my hypothesis. The fact that the climate seems to be getting warmer is melting the ice caps to a level that is dangerous. Every year we see a difference in global temperatures, and the trend is that each year global temperatures increase. Regardless if this is due to mankind or not, the environment will respond. There is another consequence of melting ice caps, particularly land-based ice. Frozen in ice and crystals on the ocean floor are stores of methane gas. Methane is a greenhouse gas, which traps heat in the atmosphere. This is the crux of global warming. The main greenhouse gas we hear about is carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide traps heat in the atmosphere, but really has little cumulative effect on global temperatures. The thing that makes carbon dioxide so bad is that it has a half life of nearly a thousand years. This means that it will linger in our atmosphere for a millennium. Methane gas is quite the opposite. It is very potent as a greenhouse gas, but its half life is 7-10 years. This makes it more of a short-term threat. The problem with methane is that it can spike temperatures more so than carbon dioxide, furthering the melting of ice and releasing more methane. This snowball effect would be damaging to the environment worldwide.

The debate about the contribution of humans to the change of the climate is ongoing. Personally, I do not have an opinion on this yet, so I will not incorporate solutions into this hypothesis yet. But know this; the climate is changing regardless of the cause. Ice is melting and breaking off in large quantities at times. In Antarctica, there are large cracks (miles long) in the sheet ice. Ice blocks the size of Rhode Island have broken off in the past five years. Ice blocks that large would have quite a significant displacement effect.

Thus far, we have only gone over the short-term effect of ice melting and breaking off. Now we shall discuss the long-term effects. Suppose all the polar ice in the world melted, and dropped into the ocean. Imagine all that sea-based ice melted also. Imagine vast oceans, and no ice. Melted ice means more water. This surely means a higher sea level right? Wrong. The sea level would decrease drastically. The reason? We have already touched on it. The short-term increase due to displacement would disappear because there would be no more ice to displace it. Combine this with the fact that the water is now taking up less space because it is in liquid form. Without the ice taking up space and displacing water, the sea level would decrease. Astounding.

Now for the mathematical part. About 97% of the planet’s water is saltwater. The remaining 3% is fresh water. This freshwater is divided amongst rivers, lakes, glaciers, permafrost, vapor, groundwater, and aquifers etc. Of this 3%, about 91% is locked in ice. So, ice caps make up about 2.73% of the world’s water. If that 2.73% of frozen freshwater was to break off and fall into the ocean, it would displace the water around it. Remember that about 85.7% of the ice submerges in the water. That would be the amount that gets displaced. 85.7% of that 2.73% is roughly 2.34%. If 2.34% of the world’s total water supply suddenly fell into water, the displacement would be huge. That is roughly equal to 8.19 x 10^18 gallons of water, which is no small amount. However, once that ice melted completely, it would not be displacing water anymore. In addition, it would take up less space. Thus, in the long run, melting the ice caps would reduce the sea level.

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4 responses to “What Happens When the Polar Ice Caps Melt?

    • First I would like to say I appreciate you taking the time to read the article. Second, I think you misunderstood what I was saying. Unless some cataclysmic event happened, the polar ice caps would melt at a very slow rate. If this is the case, then there would be no water rushing from anywhere. I do believe there will be sea level spikes when ice breaks off, but it will not account for much as the rise will be dispersed evenly throughout the water eventually.

      Sent from my HTC smartphone on the Now Network from Sprint!

    • First I would like to say thank you for taking the time to read my hypothesis. I doubt thermal expansion will have a greater net effect than the loss of water displacement that the ice provided. Remember, nearly 87% of the ice is underwater. Ice taking up more space than water probably already cancels thermal expansion out.

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