Will Great Britain disappear underwater?

Eric Hopton for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online

One of redOrbit’s valued and typically inquisitive readers has asked us if we can help with a rather tricky enquiry. Our reader wonders: “Is there any evidence of disappearing (particularly by flooding) of Great Britain, and another countries, because of climatic changes such as warming and melting ice of the North Pole or the changing of the Earth’s Magnetic Field? And if it does happen, where will people find a safe place to live?”

There’s a lot of mileage in that one but, first let’s make a couple of assumptions. Let’s assume, for instance, that this is not just wishful thinking and that our reader is not actually hoping to see the islands slip slowly but permanently under the ocean. “UK” would stand for Underwater Kingdom as Ben Nevis (the Scottish mountain which is the UK’s highest peak) finally submerges with a pathetic little gloopy sound a soggy fish and chips wrapper floats to the surface.

[STORY: Melting arctic sea ice opens passages for invasive species]

But back to your question. In 2013, an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report published their “most advanced calculation” for the likely impact of melting ice on global sea levels. The report predicted that melting ice sheets and glaciers could add 18 to 59 cm to sea levels by 2100. That’s about 5 to 24 inches, so UK coastal areas and areas close to rivers and waterways might be under threat.

Add in other factors and you’re screwed

But other factors, like thermal expansion due to warmer seas, could lead to the waters around Britain rising by up to a meter. The IPCC recognized that their estimates were vague so a group of scientists, calling themselves Ice2sea, attempted to tighten up the numbers by providing more accurate figures ice melts in Antarctica and Greenland.

[STORY: Great Tits in Britain showing new strain of Avian pox]

Ice2sea estimated that carbon emissions could raise global temperatures by 3.5 degrees Celsius by the end of this century. That would give a sea level rise of between 3.5 and 36.8 cm (about 15 inches) by 2100.

Currently, science tells us that there is a 3 millimeter rise in sea levels every year. When added to the effects of thermal expansion, ice melt, and storm surges, the worst case scenario is that the British Isles could actually face an increase of over a meter by the end of the century. Look out London – the Thames Barrier would be useless and London could be flooded every 10 years or so.

Greater threat to low-lying countries

These rises are much more of a threat to low-lying countries, from Holland to the Maldives, and many islands in the Pacific may become uninhabitable. Big delta areas, like the Ganges delta in Bangladesh, could be hit where progressively rising land levels due to silt and accumulations of river deposits make the already low-lying land especially vulnerable to meter-high sea level increases.

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There are unusual and specific factors at play in the UK. The whole land mass is slowly tilting with much of southern Britain sinking as northern Britain rises. The southeast coast of England experiences relatively large changes due to winds and storms and could in future be most at risk from sea level rises and surges.

Our world would be a different place

The most extreme predictions allow for a potential loss of all land and sea ice and consequent sea level rises of over 200 feet. Our world would then be a different place. Enforced migration of hundreds of millions of displaced people, the loss of millions of square miles of agricultural land, and enormously reduced trade in food and other products will have totally unpredictable consequences. Choosing a holiday destination for instance would be a lottery – you can forget Venice!

The nightmare scenarios of climate change and widespread flooding are enough to supply Hollywood with doomsday disaster storylines for decades to come – until maybe Hollywood itself has to relocate to higher ground. There are some, including Naomi Klein, who believe that rapid and intense change is the only answer and that “our economic system and our planetary system are now at war.”

Flooding, drought, scorched earth, extinctions (maybe even of the human race), lands and cultures lost forever – all these things could lie ahead of us and the sinking of the UK would just be a symptom of the planetary disease.

[STORY: Iceland is rising, climate change to blame]

Then again, new models of human existence and advancing technology might just stem the tide and, in a hundred years from now the worst of today’s predictions might seem as archaic as the Biblical plagues. And, from the summit of Ben Nevis, our descendants will still be able to look down on the beautiful islands far below.

As Klein says: “Nothing is inevitable. Nothing except that climate change changes everything. And for a very brief time, the nature of that change is still up to us.”

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