27 Nov 2019

An important question to consider when thinking about globalwarming is, "If the ice sheets near the poles melt, how much willthe sea level rise?" This seems like a difficult question, giventhe odd shapes of both the ice sheets and the oceans. But there aresome accurate approximations that allow the answer to be estimatedfairly accurately with reasonably simple calculations.

The critical idea is that both the thickness of the ice sheets andthe amounts of the sea-level rise are extremely small compared tothe radius of the earth. The radius of the earth is about 2/p x 107m -- more than 6000 kilometers. The ice sheet thicknesses we willbe concerned with are single digit miles and the sea level riseswill be in dozens of feet. As a result, in thinking about them, wecan essentially ignore the curvature of the earth. We can imaginepeeling the map of the earth off a globe and flattening it out (bymaking cuts, not by stretching it, so that we preserve the area).Then, both the ice and the sea level rise can be treated as right(not tilted) cylinders (though with funny shaped bases and tops).Since we know that the volume of a right cylinder is the area ofthe base times the height, we can easily estimate all the volumeswe need. A schematic picture of this approximation (with the heightof the ice mass greatly exaggerated -- you couldn't see it if Ididn't) is shown below. The error in these approximations is on theorder of the height of the cylinder considered divided by theradius of the earth; a very small number.
a. Assume that (after flattening the surface of the earth in ourimaginations) the ice sheet to be considered covers an area, A, andhas a thickness, d. The oceans currently cover about 75% of theearth's surface, and note that the surface area of a sphere is 4pr2where r is the radius of the sphere.

Generate an equation that will allow you to calculate h, the heightthe ocean levels will rise due to the melting of a an ice sheet interms of A, d, and r

b. As shown in the combined satellite photo on the right (fromGoogle Earth), Greenland is covered by a sheet of ice. This ice hasbeen measured to have a mean thickness of about 2 km. Recentobservations indicate that this ice sheet is beginning to retreat-- that it is melting at an accelerating rate.

Using the depth of the ice sheet and the scale given on thepicture, estimate how much sea level rise would be produced by themelting of the entire ice sheet lying on Greenland. (Note: You caneasily look this information up on the web. But the goal of thisproblem is in part to develop your estimation skills for thepurpose of building your ability to decide for yourself whether anygiven piece of information you find on the web is reasonable orbogus.)

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