Behind the Cover: September 2013

If all the ice on Earth melted, how wet would the Statue of Liberty get?

On the September cover, the Statue of Liberty stands in water up to her midsection, where the label “NO ICE” marks how high the sea would rise on the American icon if all the ice on Earth melted.

The cover story, "Rising Seas," looks ahead to 2100 and the effects that higher sea levels caused by climate change might have on our coastlines.

The world's ice won't have come close to disappearing by 2100. According to some scientists, that won't happen for at least 5,000 years, and we'd have to burn through the planet's supply of coal, oil, and gas to make it happen.

But for the image on the cover (and for the pull-out poster accompanying the story), we wanted to explore what the world would look like if all the ice melted. Bill Marr, the magazine's creative director, decided that the best way to illustrate this extreme scenario would be to use a recognizable point of reference: the Statue of Liberty. Nick Kaloterakis was recruited to create the art.

The first question, of course, was how high the seas would rise on an ice-free planet. That answer was straightforward enough. Philippe Huybrechts of Vrije Universiteit Brussel projected a total sea-level rise of 216 feet (66 meters) should the entire cryosphere melt, including the behemoth East Antarctic ice sheet.

The next question: How high would the water rise on the Statue of Liberty? For that, we needed two simple facts, both of which proved surprisingly elusive: The height of the Statue and its height above sea level. Those figures were difficult to confirm because the national monument was closed due to damage caused by Sandy, the very storm whose surge predicted the havoc that rising sea levels would cause.

After much digging through historic and modern sources, including a 1940 National Parks guide book, we determined that the Statue was 305 feet (92.99 meters) tall from its base to the tip of Lady Liberty's torch and 24 feet (7.2 meters) above sea level.

If this worst of all worst case scenarios comes to pass, the Statue of Liberty may be partially submerged. By the time seas might rise that high, however—thousands of years into the future—she may be long gone.