When will the polar ice caps melt and what will happen when they do?

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The colossal impact of global warming is particularly evident when we consider that 2016 marked the boreal ice cap reaching its second lowest measured amount of ice ever seen without any direct or unusual cause. To contextualize, the 2016 number for lowest extent was 4.14 million square kilometers of ice,...

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The colossal impact of global warming is particularly evident when we consider that 2016 marked the boreal ice cap reaching its second lowest measured amount of ice ever seen without any direct or unusual cause. To contextualize, the 2016 number for lowest extent was 4.14 million square kilometers of ice, while the 2012 number (which is the first lowest measured) is 3.41 million square kilometers; however, 2012's numbers can be attributed to unusually warm temperatures that year and to the release of warm water from a broken damn in northern Canada.

What this means is that we are spiraling toward a complete melting of ice caps, with 2016 setting the standard for likely continuance of ultra-low "lowest extent" numbers. As the other educator who responded to this question said, we will likely be seeing ice-free summers as soon as the 2040s. 

The impact of the ice caps melting includes the rise of sea levels. The National Resources Defense Council believes that our oceans will be one to four feet higher by 2100, which could cause huge concerns for coastal cities. Three millimeters a year may not sound like a lot, but it adds up fast. Melting ice caps also disrupt the circulation of the world's oceans, which can impact global temperatures, and erode the habitats of arctic-dwelling creatures, like polar bears. In other words, despite the lax attitudes of many media and/or political figures, global warming is one of the most important issues impacting the sustainability of human life on this planet. If we do not get this issue under control, life as we know it will very quickly change. 

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I have good news and bad news.

The good news is that the Antarctic ice caps aren't going to melt away completely any time soon. They're simply far too thick; they go down for kilometers.

The bad news is that the Arctic ice cap is going to melt away quite soon---at current rates of global warming, most scientists believe it will be effectively gone in about 30 years. The other bad news is that the Antarctic ice caps are in fact melting, and they will soon start contributing huge amounts of water to the oceans.

As the ice caps melt, the sea level will rise. If all the ice in Antarctica melted (which, let me repeat, will take a very long time), global sea levels would rise some 70 meters---that's almost as tall as the Capitol Building. This wouldn't completely flood the world---most of the land will still be here---but it would flood almost every coastal city in the world, which turns out to be an awful lot of cities. New York, Boston, Los Angeles, San Francisco, London, Amsterdam... they'll all be underwater unless global warming is stopped or huge dikes are built around them (actually Amsterdam already has dikes---but they'll need much bigger ones). Fortunately we have a fair amount of time to adapt; sea levels currently only rise about 3 millimeters per year, so it'll take about a century for them to rise one foot.

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