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What Would Happen if the Polar Ice Caps Melted?

Michael Anissimov
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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There has been much worry about the possibility that global warming will cause the polar ice caps to melt and flood many coastal cities. Coastal flooding could be catastrophic because virtually all of the world's metropolitan areas that have more than 10 million people are located on or near coasts. In short, if both polar ice caps melted, sea level would indeed rise enough to flood many coastal areas and change the world's coastlines. Most scientists, however, believe that the process would take thousands of years.

Most of the world's ice — almost 90 percent — is in Antarctica. The continent is covered by an ice shelf that is about 7,000 feet (2,133 m) thick. Depending on the time of year, there is about 800 to 1,000 times as much as covering Antarctica than in the Arctic circle, where the ice cap is floating rather than covering land.

The effects caused by the melting of Arctic ice, if the polar ice caps melted, would be relatively small. Mostly because water from the Antarctic ice cap would run into the ocean, the world's oceans would rise by about 200 feet (61 m) if the polar ice caps melted. The average temperature in Antarctica is minus-35&def; Fahrenheit (minus-37° Celsius) — well below the temperature at which water freezes — so any significant melting of the Antarctic ice cap is considered very unlikely to happen. It is considered more likely that only a portion of the ice will melt, even over a long period of time, and that sea levels will increase by no more than a few feet or meters.

If the polar ice caps melted enough to cause the ocean levels to rise several feet or a few meters, however, the results would be significant. The streets of many current coastal cities would be underwater. Low-lying countries, such as many of those in Indonesia, could become almost entirely submerged. Flooding also could cover much farmland and affect the world's food supply. Farmers in the flooded areas would need to move to more elevated, likely rockier land, which might be less suited to growing crops.

What is not possible is that all the world's land would be covered if the polar ice caps melted. There simply is not enough ice on Earth for this to happen. Even in a severe flood, only a small percentage of the world's land would be lost.

All Things Nature is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Michael Anissimov
By Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov is a dedicated All Things Nature contributor and brings his expertise in paleontology, physics, biology, astronomy, chemistry, and futurism to his articles. An avid blogger, Michael is deeply passionate about stem cell research, regenerative medicine, and life extension therapies. His professional experience includes work with the Methuselah Foundation, Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, and Lifeboat Foundation, further showcasing his commitment to scientific advancement.
Discussion Comments
By anon989109 — On Feb 20, 2015

If ice caps melted, then the sea would get watered down, making icebergs float even less than they are, making them even more dangerous.

By anon948825 — On May 02, 2014

I do not think this will happen anytime soon so don't worry, If this was to happen it would be about a thousand years away or about 2,000 or double a thousand more away so there you go. Peace out.

By anon354077 — On Nov 05, 2013

You aren't taking into consideration the 'density' of salt water in comparison with fresh water. If the Arctic ice melts, there will be a rise in ocean levels.

By anon326493 — On Mar 22, 2013

This is not true because most of Antarctica's ice is above sea level on land. If it melts, it will flood into the sea and raise the sea level. The ice cube in a glass of water only applies to the north pole where the ice is actually floating. The South Pole is on land and thousands of feet thick.

By anon316455 — On Jan 28, 2013

Question: Is anyone looking at the internal geological events and their potential impact on global warming? I have followed the ongoing discussions on man's impact but I have not seen any publicity concerning the discovery of thousands of thermal vents that have been reported over the past decade, nor of the volcanic activity under the Arctic Ocean, with NASA and NOAA both having articles tucked away as to such activity having occurred in the 1990's.

The potential for warming strikes me as just as probable from internal sources the atmospheric ones, possibly more. Given the fact that the magnetic north has moved more in the past 20 years than it has in the prior 80, one might think that the huge molten iron core is on the move and its impact could be much more profound than fossil fuels. Given the laws of thermodynamics heating seawater from thermal vents(500deg. F plus) and warmer ocean floors beats the liquid/gas interface on the oceans surface. Oh -- and then there is something about the increased solar impact.

By anon312223 — On Jan 06, 2013

If only sea ice were to melt (the condition which for the most part, or in total, exists within the Arctic Circle), then the sea level would drop. If only land ice were to melt (Antarctic and other glaciers), then the sea level would rise (Archimides' principle of relative density of solid vs liquid H2O. If you don't understand, I would recommend taking a basic course in physics and chemistry).

Salt water freezes at a lower temperature, thereby (all else being equal) tending to keep sea ice from reforming once melted in the face of higher average sea and air temps. However, if landlocked ice doesn't melt in an equivalent liquid volume, then the sea level would drop. That's a lot of ifs. There are many interacting parts in this very complex system, which in addition to both natural, earth bound forces (including man), are also, possibly to a large extent, influenced by forces outside of earth, our solar system and possibly our galaxy, which could be a source of (up to this point) the relatively poor predictive value of the computer models.

If the world's developing countries, most prominently China and India, continue to expand their fossil fuel consumption, and this will probably occur, then any drop in the USA's CO2 output will contribute very little to diminishing the total atmospheric concentration of this indispensable gas.

By anon312089 — On Jan 05, 2013

If the entire Earth was under water at one time, Where did all the water go? Water doesn't just disappear; it turns to gas and ice, but the size of the polar ice caps doesn't add up to if all the Earth was under water. And the water vapor doesn't add up either. So where did the 200,000,000,000 gallons go? Give and take! (And on that note, ice is expanded water, when frozen.)

By anon303146 — On Nov 13, 2012

If the sea rise is inevitable, then a logical response is to create places for it. Terraform in Africa, for instance, and create large, deep saltwater lakes that will hold some of the water. The subsahara needs more water anyhow. Death Valley in Calif would also be a natural spot.

Before you cry about environmental damage, remember that these areas would likely be swamped anyhow. Yes, it would require a massive effort, but not as much effort as relocating New York. And anyhow, the massive construction equipment we have these days can do almost anything.

By anon301765 — On Nov 05, 2012

Ice in glass melting isn't the same as the polar ice caps because a lot of the ice is above the surface of the water on the polar ice caps. Ice in the water usually doesn't float above the surface.

Fill the cup full of ice, fill the cup 3/4 and let it melt. The level of water then will rise.

By anon301762 — On Nov 05, 2012

So if it takes 1,000 years for it to melt completely, wouldn't man slowly adjust to the rising water levels? Wouldn't the ocean and its life slowly over time adjust? So what is the harm? Yes, some species will vanish, but others will take their place.

Haven't all species on earth been downsizing since the ice age? Think about it: the small species survived the dinosaur age and Ice age, while the larger ones have gone. Shouldn't polar bears (the largest bears) seals, blue whales, etc., die off in favor of small species that can better change with the environment?

By anon273935 — On Jun 09, 2012

@anon225927: Ice is not heavier. Ice cubes float in your drink. Ice has greater volume than liquid water; that's the catch (Ice is less dense).

By anon270905 — On May 24, 2012

I am glad that there may be some land left. I was worried that all the land would be gone. At least humans have a small chance of surviving on land.

By anon262964 — On Apr 22, 2012

Volume = mass

Mass doesn't change with density; it stays same. A lot of people here don't really understand how ice melts and what scientists mean by "floating." Most ice is, in fact, residing on the ground mass. the "floating" ice is only in about a few feet (maybe even less) of water.

Yes, when you freeze water, its volume expands and it takes more space for the same mass (granted, in Archimedes' principle, it floats when in a similar mass of liquid).

When ice from the North Pole melts, it's basically huge chunks of ice where it's mostly under water but where large parts are outside of the water. This mass floats south and melts there (it doesn't melt in the North Pole!)

When we say global warming is affecting polar ice, does it mean that ice caps are so huge that you have several (hundreds?) of meters of ice bearing on a highly compressed tiny amount of water? Weight and pressure melts the bottom ice rendering it less inert, thus putting pressure on it to crack. This then results in icebergs.

Add that to milder temperatures and this creates less top ice in the winter (less condensation) and so you get "melting" ice crusts.

By anon240361 — On Jan 13, 2012

All this is well and good, but water levels are rising, the ambient temperature of the earth is heating up. One way to solve this is a canal built east to west of North africa. The substantial vapor would cover more of the atmosphere in the form of clouds, thus acting as a shield against the sun's UV. Also as a byproduct, once sea water finally turns into fresh water, it would add to the ecology of North Africa. hopefully stemming the growth of the Sahara. Building aqueducts off the canal, would in turn enhance the overall ecology. In time creating a growth of plant life, in a sustainable environment.

By anon236189 — On Dec 22, 2011

If both the ice caps melted, would the surrounding seas become colder or warmer?

By anon227296 — On Nov 04, 2011

If the ice caps did melt into the ocean, would all the fresh water from them upset the balance of salt water? Wouldn't that kill a large part of the ocean life? Isn't the ocean whats keeping us alive? I mean, in theory, didn't we come from the ocean? and doesn't the ocean have a huge impact on us, for living I mean?

I look at it like this: if there is a God, he will do what he wants to do, and we can't stop that. If it is just us, we have trashed this beautiful planet and I don't know if it will bounce back. Does anybody? Are we completely messed up?

By anon225927 — On Oct 29, 2011

I'm sorry to say, but are you kidding? I'm sitting here losing my mind over these comments.

"Simple logic, simply proven, but you won't find these facts anywhere because the Libs want your money". What?

"If both caps melted, the water level would rise 61 meters". Which planet was that?

"My mom said it will take a 100 million years from now on for all the ice to melt and cause flooding". Noah's ark, anyone?

"If you take a glass of water and put ice in it, the level of water will rise since ice is heavier than water, but when the ice melts, the water level will go down. So, melting ice will not raise ocean levels at any time". Enough said.

"With this in mind, the two hot and cold climates will disrupt the equilibrium of the equator and will combine to make catastrophic climate conditions and catastrophic natural disasters". So ahh whats it in equilibrium with?

By anon182686 — On Jun 02, 2011

I agree entirely the fact is evidence is all around us. Not will we only suffer but so will the wildlife. For example, the polar bear population has gone down due to ice melting and the polar bears are left to drown. If we do not act with all haste the Earth will be destroyed.

By anon168517 — On Apr 17, 2011

When ice acts like an insulator for the sun in a factor 1C, and seawater acts like 6 times the opposite, to store sunshine, then a melting insulator is not only disappearing, but it is adding to the storage capacity, which will increase the meltdown in a rapidly more affecting fashion.

I'll give the details in a moment, but it comes down to an estimated time before all ice is melted off, no more then give or take a little bit: 13 years! Why it must be 13 again, I don't know.

If we are wrong about the complexity of this issue, we had better start to try and delay it.

Estimated time before all ice has gone = M

Storage capacity of all seawater = S

Sn = the new value of all seawater

melting ice = m = Cn

meltwater= m*1,1 ( Ice floats on water, remember )

Reflective surface of the Icecap = I

In = the new value of the Icecap

The working formula being 6000/400 = 15 as a starting value of Sn/In = Cn

expected years from now (2011) before all the ice has gone M = 100 - Cn = 85 ( so until 2096 )

Cn+1= Sn+1 + Cn*6,6 / In+1 - Cn

Cn+2= Sn+2 + Cn+1*6,6 / In+2 - Cn+1

Taking you through the development according to this formula in four steps:

In six years' time, this results in 6794/278= 22,71

M = 100 - 23 = 77 years from now (2011 + 6 = 2017)

this would mean a loss of two years, so until 2094

In 9 years time this results in 7293/203= 31,63

M = 100 - 32 = 68 years from now (2011 + 9 = 2020)

this would mean a total of 77 years, so until 2088

In 13 years time ( why o why is this 13 again ) this results in 8440/29 = 94,95

M = 100 - 95 = 5 years from now ( 2011 + 13 = 2024)this would mean a total of only 18 years until 2029.

But in that next year the crossover point has been reached, and in a few months all ice will be gone.

Being a mathematician and not a physician,the C may be slightly off, or missing factors, but it shows the effect of melting not 1C less ice into 1 c more sea, but an increasingly growing factor of acceleration.

I have come up with an idea of putting huge sheets of gold- or silver-coloured reflective foil over the area of the icy seas. This way the equation would not be M= 100+1 - Cn+1= Sn+1 + Cn*6,6 / In+1 - Cn

but M= 100+1 - Cn+1= Sn+1 + Cn*1.1 / In+1 - Cn

because the loss of reflective power is compensated by the foil. We might even be able to reverse the process by adding so much foil that the seas are cooling down a little. Just to give us some time to find out what the actual complexity of the process is and if necessary find a proper solution in time.

By anon159046 — On Mar 09, 2011

I'm sorry, but most of the people writing comments here are talking about facts and theories with very little basis in actual science. Please refrain from talking about "fact" and "truth" when it is in fact totally bogus and based more in superstition than actual science.

By anon153878 — On Feb 18, 2011

Let's pretend that the old star betelgeuse goes super on 2012. Would that raise the earths temp having two suns? could that melt the caps? (not religious) but Christ's second coming all will see and I'm sure nostradamus said something about doomsday and all witnessing the event. seems funny that the day after tomorrow and 2012 films seem to be leading the way. 11-11 is a strange phenomenon which people are signing up to.

Something is coming, call me daft, but life is not solely on science bricks and fact. We have knowledge of something. We just need to put all the pieces together. i Hope i have you thinking as someone needs to.

By anon148949 — On Feb 02, 2011

There have been a few erroneous comments made about whether water level would indeed rise should the polar ice caps melt, here are some elementary facts.

Normally when something 'freezes' it results in a more densely packed molecular structure, resulting in an increase in density and a decrease in volume. However, water has the peculiar property where freezing it actually increases its volume. One obvious side-effect of this is the decrease in density as the same amount of water increases in volume; this is the reason why frozen ice floats on top of liquid water.

The second phenomenon is commonly known as Archimedes' principle where for an object to be buoyant in water, the water must displace equivalent amounts of water as the buoyant mass.

Combining these two basic physics principles we arrive at the conclusion that the melting of arctic ice (or its re-freezing for that matter) will have no impact on the sea levels of the world. On the other hand, the melting of Antarctic ice cap will raise the sea-level because those ices are on top of a piece of giant landmass.

By anon148928 — On Feb 02, 2011

Lots of misconceptions there:

The approximate alignment of the planets in 2012 will have absolutely no bearing on the Earth, because of the large distance away each planet is.

Only the Earth's moon has an effect on the Earth, and again that is because it is relatively close to the Earth, which gives it gravitational pull.

The "fear" about 2012 is nothing more than an internet hoax about a phantom "planet" that is supposedly going to collide with the Earth. That was originally predicted to happen in May 2003. When that didn't occur, it was conveniently moved to the winter solstice of 2012 to coincide with the Mayan calendar. However, the phantom planet does not exist.

As far as global warming and magnetic north, those are two totally unrelated items. Magnetic North IS constantly changing and is currently moving towards Russia at a rate of about 40 miles/year. In fact about every 4,000 centuries Magnetic North and Magnetic South actually change places with each other.

Global warming is partially naturally-occurring, but the rate of increase in global warming is due to the effects of human beings, specifically CO2 and methane emissions.

By anon140581 — On Jan 07, 2011

magnetic north hasn't always being where it is today. Global warming is a natural occurrence, and it cannot be stopped. It has happened before -- multiple times.

In about another 7000 to 12000 years, magnetic north will be about 32 degrees off where it is now.

The thing about 2012 (the end of the world) that worries me is that a lot of the planets in our solar system will align. What will this alignment do? Will it do anything? Will it pull earth's axis drastically? Kind of like moving the clock ahead 9000 years in one earth day?

By anon136891 — On Dec 24, 2010

I have a common knowledge question based on this. The northern polar ice cap is freezing over while the southern polar ice cap is melting. I know this due to New Zealand's and Australia's summers getting about 1-2 degrees celsius hotter and more humid over the past couple of years.

Australia was in the midst of a severe drought, and up until a couple of weeks ago Australia suffered the harshest floods in years. The melting of the southern polar ice cap will cause temperatures to rise in the south and in the north the temperature will be getting colder. Reason due to the southern ice cap melting is the hole in the ozone layer. Therefore, New Zealand and Australia are rising in temperature and humidity.

With this in mind, the two hot and cold climates will disrupt the equilibrium of the equator and will combine to make catastrophic climate conditions and catastrophic natural disasters.

We have commonplace here with Mother Nature but we still haven't seen her unleash her fury! We have a lot more natural disasters happening now, more than ever before! So with this theory in mind, this is a 100 percent true fact and a common knowledge answer!

By anon123162 — On Oct 31, 2010

nonsense? Not. Land based ice melts will raise the ocean levels and yes, this, in turn, will flood the amazon/st.lawrence river/arctic and coastal rivers flowing into canada and out of canada. The lake ontario region will be flooded. Then montreal, kingston, ontario and toronto will be flooded. PEI, Nova Scotia, Bay of Fundy -- all flooded.

Political scientists know this, too. It's coming, folks. It's coming. It's a scientific fact and not scare mongering at all. It's physics, plain and simple. Man made? Not. It's the sun that's doing it. It's called sun cycles, folks. Kiss the known world goodbye. Humanity is stupid, but are masters at hindsight.

By anon122899 — On Oct 30, 2010

Will this melting of polar ice cause any change in the earth's radius?

By anon120784 — On Oct 22, 2010

has anyone thought about the fact that, if the ice melts and the eventual rise in temp at the bottom of the ocean matches the temp at or not too far below the surface, the entire ocean cycle will cease to exist? stopping this cycle has a huge effect on weather patterns around the globe. the rise in ocean temps result in bigger, more fierce and damaging storms.

The ice caps keep the ocean at a cooler temp

and I imagine also contributes to the health of the ocean due to the "recycling" caused by the colder water flowing below the surface.

This will also have an effect on agriculture due to the rise in air temp also caused by the death of ocean currents, causing droughts and huge changes in weather patterns and activity.

In my opinion, it will also contribute to new diseases. Who knows what pathogens or air borne illnesses lie within the four thousand year old ice, and is it possible they could be released. I think that should be kept in mind at least.

Not only that, but the rise in air temp will spread new diseases, most likely across the globe.

I know you guys are on the "drowning" argument, but there's more to the ice melting than having to buy boats.

When that cycle stops, things are going to get a whole lot different.

By anon111353 — On Sep 16, 2010

my mom said it will take a 100 million years from now on for all the ice to melt and cause flooding.

By anon106313 — On Aug 25, 2010

sorry anon46092, you're wrong. if both caps melted, the water level would rise 61 meters, the north pole ice cap is over a mile thick and most of it is floating on the surface of the sea.

your experiment is wrong. take half a glass of water and freeze it, then take a second glass, half-filled. let the frozen water melt then add it to the first glass. The molecules in frozen water are more tightly packed together. when it melts, the total volume increases. basic science, dude.

By anon104578 — On Aug 17, 2010

Only the ice that is above the current ocean level would contribute to a sea level rise, and that only partially since ice is less dense than melted water. The reports of of the ocean level rising is in the same category as reports that the sky is falling.

By anon94129 — On Jul 07, 2010

if 2012 actually happens and the poles do, in fact, move to new areas, it could cause extreme problems. the ice would melt in weeks or days, not years. natural disasters have happened before and they still can't be explained. anything is possible.

By anon91251 — On Jun 20, 2010

Anon 82750: "Ice is heavier than water" Wow! Am I the only one who caught that.

By anon88968 — On Jun 08, 2010

Greenland and Antarctica are not giant ice cubes floating on water. They are on land, several meters above the sea level.

By anon82750 — On May 07, 2010

Everyone should try this at home. If you take a glass of water and put ice in it, the level of water will rise since ice is heavier than water, but when the ice melts, the water level will go down. So, melting ice will not raise ocean levels at any time.

The only way oceans could rise is if a part of land rises up from the sea bed, since two objects cannot occupy the same place and this will happen sooner than you think.

By anon73904 — On Mar 29, 2010

The ice on the poles has not increased the last few years, it has gone down a great deal, and big ice on land has also. Ice in greenland is melting more each year.

By anon73706 — On Mar 29, 2010

hey anon65542, ice melts at 32 degrees f, not water. water is already the melted form of ice.

By anon71238 — On Mar 17, 2010

yes, water is most dense at four degrees celsius, but the fact remains that 90 percent of the earth's ice is in antarctica, and therefore, on land.

unless i missed something, ice that is on land cannot displace any water. so if antarctic ice melted, the sea level actually would rise.

sorry anon46092, you got it wrong. but don't worry, you can still inform the "Libs" that it won't happen. The average annual temperature in antarctica is still negative 37 degrees celsius- far below the melting point of water.

By anon65542 — On Feb 14, 2010

Water melts at 32 degrees F or above. It never gets that warm at either pole. The average temperature of the interior region of the Arctic mass is -37 degrees. It is not going to melt. The Arctic ice has increased for the last few years.

By anon63226 — On Jan 31, 2010

Your ice in a cup experiment is flawed. A lot of ice is on land, not floating. An accurate ice in a cup experiment would be putting a platform above the water level in the cup and placing the ice on the platform. The platform represents the land that the ice cap is lying on, such as Antarctica, or Greenland.

By anon61685 — On Jan 21, 2010

i have tried to express these same theories to all those conspiracy nuts but they all refuse to believe. They all want to believe that everything is going to cause the end of the world so they do not have to feel responsible for foolish beliefs. I say believe what you can see, test the theory for yourself watch the water fall when the ice melts. Also, when you place ice in a glass of water most of the ice is under the water leaving only a fraction above the surface. Why do people refuse to believe their own eyes?

By anon56690 — On Dec 16, 2009

If the North Pole melted and the sea were not salty, the net rise in sea level would be zero at 0 degrees Celsius. That’s because the weight of water that is displaced by ice is equal to the weight of the ice.

As the temperature increases to four degrees Celsius, the volume will decrease slightly since water is most dense at that temperature. Warming further, the volume increases well past the volume at zero degrees. The warming of the seas devoid of ice is the source of significant sea level increase. Since the sea is salty, and more dense than fresh water, the level will increase, depending on the local salinity, as the ice melts and the level will continue to increase as before, above 4 degrees C.

So, with all of the money you’re saving by living in your neo-con dream world, maybe I could interest you in some nice beach front property east of Sacramento!

By anon55904 — On Dec 10, 2009

But if the ice caps have more water than we have land, then the fact stays that the water would flood the land, and without any land, where would we be then?

By anon55022 — On Dec 03, 2009

anon46092: Most of the southern polar ice rests on a massive body of land called the Antarctica continent and thus does not displace ocean water as you would think.

By anon54865 — On Dec 02, 2009

But if ice floats and most of it is not in water how does that make it true?

By anon52434 — On Nov 14, 2009

The water displacement only happens if the ice cap on the North pole melts, not both.

By anon46092 — On Sep 22, 2009

It is a scientific fact that if BOTH ice caps melted completely, the ocean levels would actually decrease. A simple experiment you can do at home will prove this fact. Fill a glass of water half way, then fill the rest of it with ice. Measure the water level in the glass then allow all the ice to melt. The water level goes down. The reason? The amount of water displaced by the ice is actually greater than the amount of water after the ice melts. The amount of ice at both poles is enormous, displacing ocean water. Even if all the land ice melted as well, the runoff would return the ocean to the same level it was before *both* ice caps melted. Simple logic, simply proven, but you won't find these facts anywhere because the Libs want your money.

Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov is a dedicated All Things Nature contributor and brings his expertise in paleontology, physics,...
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