Sea level rise: what has happened so far

By: Dr. Jeff Masters , 2:05 PM GMT on June 10, 2009

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Sea level has been rising globally since the late 1700s. This rise has accelerated in recent decades, thanks to increased melting of glaciers and ice sheets due to a warmer climate, plus the fact that warmer oceans are less dense and expand, further increasing sea level. Though sea level rise appears to have slowed over the past five years, it will significantly accelerate if the climate warms the 2 - 3°C it is expected to this century. If these forecasts of a warmer world prove accurate, higher sea levels will be a formidable challenge for millions of people world-wide during the last half of this century. Sea level rise represents one of my personal top two climate change concerns (drought is the other). I'll present a series of blog posts over the coming months focusing on at-risk areas in the U.S., Caribbean, and world-wide. Today, I focus on the observed sea level rise since the Ice Age.

What's at stake
Higher sea levels mean increased storm surge inundation, coastal erosion, loss of low-lying land areas, and salt water contamination of underground drinking water supplies. About 44% of the Earth's 6.7 billion people live within 150 km (93 miles) of the coast, and 600 million people live at an elevation less than ten meters (33 feet). Eight of the ten largest cities in the world are sited on the ocean coast. In the U.S., the coastal population has doubled over the past 50 years. Fourteen of the twenty largest urban centers are located within 100 km of the coast, and are less than ten meters above sea level (McGranahan et al., 2007). The population of many vulnerable coastal regions are expected to double by 2050, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Sea level rise since the Ice Age
Before the most recent Ice Age, sea level was about 4 - 6 meters (13 - 20 feet) higher than at present. Then, during the Ice Age, sea level dropped 120 meters (395 ft) as water evaporated from the oceans precipitated out onto the great land-based ice sheets. The former ocean water remained frozen in those ice sheets during the Ice Age, but began being released 12,000 - 15,000 years ago as the Ice Age ended and the climate warmed. Sea level increased about 115 meters over a several thousand year period, rising 40 mm/year (1.6"/yr) during one 500-year pulse of melting 14,600 years ago. The rate of sea level rise slowed to 11 mm/year (0.43"/yr) during the period 7,000 - 14,000 years ago (Bard et al., 1996), then further slowed to 0.5 mm/yr 6,000 - 3,000 years ago. About 2,000 - 3,000 years ago, the sea level stopped rising, and remained fairly steady until the late 1700s (IPCC 2007). One exception to this occurred during the Medieval Warm Period of 1100 - 1200 A.D., when warm conditions similar to today's climate caused the sea level to rise 5 - 8" (12 - 21 cm) higher than present (Grinsted et al., 2008). This was probably the highest the sea has been since the beginning of the Ice Age, 110,000 years ago. There is a fair bit of uncertainty in all these estimates, since we don't have direct measurements of the sea level.


Figure 1. Global sea level from 200 A.D. to 2000, as reconstructed from proxy records of sea level by Moberg et al. 2005. The thick black line is reconstructed sea level using tide gauges (Jevrejeva, 2006). The lightest gray shading shows the 5 - 95% uncertainty in the estimates, and the medium gray shading denotes the one standard deviation error estimate. The highest global sea level of the past 110,000 years likely occurred during the Medieval Warm Period of 1100 - 1200 A.D., when warm conditions similar to today's climate caused the sea level to rise 5 - 8" (12 - 21 cm) higher than present. Image credit: Grinsted, A., J.C. Moore, and S. Jevrejeva, 2009, "Reconstructing sea level from paleo and projected temperatures 200 to 2100 AD", Climate Dynamics, DOI 10.1007/s00382-008-0507-2, 06 January 2009.

Sea level rise over the past 300 years
Direct measurements of sea level using tide gauges began in Amsterdam in 1700. Additional tide gauges began recording data in Liverpool, England in 1768 and in Stockholm, Sweden in 1774. These gauges suggest that a steady acceleration of sea rise of 0.01 mm per year squared began in the late 1700s, resulting in a rise in sea level of 2.4" (6 cm, 0.6 mm/yr) during the 19th century and 7.5" (19 cm, 1.9 mm/yr) during the 20th century (Jevrejeva et al., 2008). There is considerable uncertainty in just how much sea level rise has occurred over the past few centuries, though. Measuring global average sea level rise is a very tricky business. For starters, one must account for the tides, which depend on the positions of the Earth and Moon on a cycle that repeats itself once every 18.6 years. Tide gauges are scattered, with varying lengths of record. The data must be corrected since land is sinking in some regions, due to pumping of ground water, oil and gas extraction, and natural compaction of sediments. Also, the land is rising in other regions, such as Northern Europe, where it is rebounding from the lost weight of the melted glaciers that covered the region during the last Ice Age. Ocean currents, precipitation, and evaporation can cause a 20 inch (50 cm) difference in sea level in different portions of the ocean. As a result of all this uncertainty, the 1996 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report gave a range of 4 - 10" (10 - 25 cm) for the observed sea level rise of the 20th century. The 2007 IPCC report narrowed this range a bit, to 5 - 9" (12 - 22 cm), or 1.2 - 2.2 mm/year. Rates of sea level rise are much higher in many regions. In the U.S., the highest rates of sea-level rise are along the Mississippi Delta region--over 10 mm/yr, or 1 inch/2.5 years (USGS, 2006). This large relative rise is due, in large part, to the fact that the land is sinking.


Figure 2. Absolute sea level rise between 1955 and 2003 as computed from tide gauges and satellite imagery data. The data has been corrected for the rising or sinking of land due to crustal motions or subsidence of the land, so the relative sea level rise along the coast will be different than this. The total rise (in inches) for the 48-year period is given in the top scale, and the rate in mm/year is given in the bottom scale. The regional sea level variations shown here resulted not only from the input of additional water from melting of glaciers and ice caps, but also from changes in ocean temperature and density, as well as changes in precipitation, ocean currents, and river discharge. Image credit: IPCC, 2007

Sea level rise over the past 15 years
According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 2007 report, sea level accelerated from the 1.2 - 2.2 mm/yr observed during the 20th century to 3.1 mm/year during the period 1993 - 2003. These estimates come from high resolution measurements from satellite radar altimeters, which began in 1992. Tide gauges showed a similar level of sea level rise during that ten-year period. The IPCC attributed more than half of this rise (1.6 mm/yr) to the fact that the ocean expanded in size due to increased temperatures. Another 1.2 mm/yr rise came from melting of Greenland, West Antarctica, and other land-based ice, and about 10% of the rise was unaccounted for. However, during the period 2003 - 2008, sea level rise slowed to 2.5 mm/year, according to measurements of Earth's gravity from the GRACE satellites (Cazenave et al., 2008). This reduction in sea level rise probably occurred because ocean sea surface temperatures have not warmed since 2003 (Figure 3). The authors concluded that sea level rise due to ocean warming decreased more than a factor of five from 2003 - 2008, compared to 1993 - 2003, contributing only 0.3 mm/yr vs. the 1.6 mm/yr previously.


Figure 3. Global average sea surface temperatures (SSTs) from 1990-2008. SSTs have not increased in the past seven years. Image credit: NASA/GISS.

For more information
The best source of information I found while compiling my sea level pages was the Coastal Sensitivity to Sea-Level Rise: A Focus on the Mid-Atlantic Region report by the U.S. Climate Science Program. It has a huge number of references to all the latest science being done on sea level rise.

References
Bard, E., et al., 1996, "Sea level record from Tahiti corals and the timing of deglacial meltwater discharge", Nature 382, pp241-244, doi:10.1038/382241a0.

Cazenave et al., 2008, "Sea level budget over 2003-2008: A reevaluation from satellite altimetry and Argo", Global and Planetary Change, 2008; DOI:10.1016/j.gloplacha.2008.10.004

Grinsted, A., J.C. Moore, and S. Jevrejeva, 2009, "Reconstructing sea level from paleo and projected temperatures 200 to 2100 AD", Climate Dynamics, DOI 10.1007/s00382-008-0507-2, 06 January 2009.

IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), 2007: Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Solomon, S., D. Qin, M. Manning, Z. Chen, M. Marquis, K.B. Averyt, M. Tignor, and H.L. Miller (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, and New York, 996 pp.

Jevrejeva, S., J.C. Moore, A. Grinsted,, and P.L. Woodworth, 2008, "Recent global sea level acceleration started over 200 years ago?", Geophysical Research Letters, 35, L08715, doi:10.1029/2008GL033611, 2008.

McGranahan, G., D. Balk, and B. Anderson, 2007, "The rising tide: assessing the risks of climate change and human settlements in low elevation coastal zones", Environment & Urbanization, 19(1), 17-37.

Moberg, A., et al., 2005, "Highly variable northern hemisphere temperature reconstructed from low- and high-resolution proxy data", Nature 433, pp613-617, doi:10.1038/nature03265.

United States Geological Survey (USGS), 2006, National Assessment of Coastal Vulnerability to Sea-Level Rise: Preliminary Results for the U.S. Gulf of Mexico Coast, U.S. Geological Survey Open-File Report 00-179.

Tropical update
The tropical Atlantic is quiet, and the only region worth watching is the Western Caribbean, which could see formation of a tropical disturbance with heavy thunderstorm activity this weekend.

Jeff Masters

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Just curious, is it tryin 2 develop a eye circulation??

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Have fun guys & Gals, back in an hour or so from work.
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Thanks beell.
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879. IKE
12Z NAM


And now...I Ran
for your R & R pleasure. Requested at 1-800-iluvrok.......
Member Since: June 9, 2005 Posts: 23 Comments: 37858
878. beell
Quoting KEHCharleston:
Ok, I think I've got it.

Upper level shows how the environment is setting up.

Surface is where I look to see storm potential.

Thanks all (and correct me if I do not have this right)


I think you got it, KEH. One other thing-The upper level ridges and troughs, and cut-offs depicted on the models (500mb, 300mb, 250mb, etc.) usually have the greatest run-to-run consistancy. They may differ a little but not usually a large difference. And that makes sense. The bigger picture is easier to model and will eventually translate to the the surface. It's that "eventually" part I have trouble with!

Member Since: September 11, 2007 Posts: 137 Comments: 15297
Shear will decrease at 9N 52W by tomorrow.



Location is not where one would expect a June storm.
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I want to Be a "Met"

Member Since: July 3, 2005 Posts: 414 Comments: 125422
Yukon cant find a storm track,,,so were safe until Jeff Leaves for London I guess.
Member Since: July 3, 2005 Posts: 414 Comments: 125422
Yukon Cornelius rules! Ya-hoooooooooo!
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pat:I love that old school classic "frosty the snowman",takes me back to my childhood days!!!
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I know Ikie,your one of the good guys,lol...
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Quoting TampaSpin:
9N 52W will become the first Named Storm of the year....Good Morning everyone


You mean the little blob under 35 knots of shear?

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869. IKE
Quoting stillwaiting:
hey,hey know Ike,go to your room and take another hit,lol;)


Just a teasin w/ya.
Member Since: June 9, 2005 Posts: 23 Comments: 37858
Spin is starting and does show up on Vorticity....i pointed this out yesterday on my update.....TampaSpin Update

Member Since: September 2, 2007 Posts: 177 Comments: 20430
hey,hey now Ike,go to your room and take another hit,lol;)
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Quoting stillwaiting:
no quake,there working on the property behind me,I just went outside and it was a backhoe slamming into the pavement,we did have a 6.0 about 200miles offshore of tampa area about 3 or 4yrs ago!!!!:)


There Ya Go...That backhoe will do it every time...
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no quake,there working on the property behind me,I just went outside and it was a backhoe slamming into the pavement,we did have a 6.0 about 200miles offshore of tampa area about 3 or 4yrs ago!!!!:)
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864. IKE
Wishcasting storms.

Wishcasting earthquakes?

Need some 80's music to loosen things up.

GO!
Member Since: June 9, 2005 Posts: 23 Comments: 37858
Most likely a sonic boom off shore. We get them all the time here in Panama City Beach.
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not according to the usgs

Link
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er,..maybe a Big ol truck carrying dirt.
Member Since: July 3, 2005 Posts: 414 Comments: 125422
Quoting TampaSpin:
9N 52W will become the first Named Storm of the year....Good Morning everyone
Oh no! Morning Tampa!
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USGS ,,shows nada in Fla.
Member Since: July 3, 2005 Posts: 414 Comments: 125422
Quoting stillwaiting:
something just shook my house!!!(a little,not alot!!)


Process of elimination (shock wave from car/air plane crash?).....
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9N 52W will become the first Named Storm of the year....Good Morning everyone
Member Since: September 2, 2007 Posts: 177 Comments: 20430
Quoting stillwaiting:
I think we just had a small quake here in sarasota????


Interesting... It's possible.
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something just shook my house!!!(a little,not alot!!)
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I think we just had a small quake here in sarasota????
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AOI #1

AOI #2
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Quoting KEHCharleston:
Ok, I think I've got it.

Upper level shows how the environment is setting up.

Surface is where I look to see storm potential.

Thanks all (and correct me if I do not have this right)


I am a complete amateur but the concept I think is correct; once the depression or storm forms, then, we start talking about favorable conditions at the surface, and, at the upper levels which allow the storm to become "vertically" stacked from the surface up through the upper levels.....Then, once the engine gets going, all the relevent conditions need to keep "firing on all cylinders" so to speak to keep the system alive and viable..i.e. cooler waters will disrupt the heat part of the engine at the surface, or, excessive wind sheer over the top will also disrupt the system (name your poison-dry air-sheer-cool water temps, and, on and on)...It takes a lot of favorable covergence of several factors to support cyclogenisis and storm formation/favorable debvelopment....IMHO
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Quoting Patrap:
Quoting Squid28:
Lets see, here we are at around post 800 and something and I keep seeing comments interjected about the doctors blog, global warming mumbo jumbo etc. I wonder who we have to thank for all of this..



Folks always skew and duck what they dont understand or cant comprehend.


Kinda Like in the Dark ages..but without the BE-heading and all.
LOL LOL...
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As the world shifts...
ice melts and water rises....
volcanoes erupt and land rises...


Blame Orca
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Quoting Cotillion:
Apparently we now have a full pandemic according to the WHO.

I blame El Nino...


No, no, no! Blame AGW!
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Quoting Squid28:
Lets see, here we are at around post 800 and something and I keep seeing comments interjected about the doctors blog, global warming mumbo jumbo etc. I wonder who we have to thank for all of this..



Folks always skew and duck what they dont understand or cant comprehend.


Kinda Like in the Dark ages..but without the BE-heading and all.
Member Since: July 3, 2005 Posts: 414 Comments: 125422
847. TX2FL
Morning All,

Texas weather has been alot more interesting than the nothingness that seems to be happening in the Caribbean.

16 hours straight of Thunder makes for TS/Hurricane practice...and no sleep.
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ESL by LSU
Member Since: July 3, 2005 Posts: 414 Comments: 125422
Quoting Squid28:
Lets see, here we are at around post 800 and something and I keep seeing comments interjected about the doctors blog, global warming mumbo jumbo etc. I wonder who we have to thank for all of this.......





So this is all ORCA's fault???
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Quoting stillwaiting:
have a good expedition oz!!!!


I'm so excited, all my molecules are vibrating!

A pre-historic beach where some of the most beautiful petrified wood can be found free of charge...

And then a hunt at the source where a glob of copper infused all the petrified wood in a region of mountainous terrain that covers many square miles...

Wow... :)

[/me loves my Yamaha Rhino]
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Apparently we now have a full pandemic according to the WHO.

I blame El Nino...
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Ok, I think I've got it.

Upper level shows how the environment is setting up.

Surface is where I look to see storm potential.

Thanks all (and correct me if I do not have this right)
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Quoting KEHCharleston:
Do we watch the vorticity at the surface or higher levels? (when watching for development of tropical systems)

I personally watch lower levels more, as it is generally easier for a system to work its way up as a warm core, rather than work its way down. That said, both are important, as you need vort at all levels for cyclogenesis.
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840. beell
Quoting KEHCharleston:
Do we watch the vorticity at the surface or higher levels?


Depends on what your looking for! Lower level vorticity is great for identifying the AOI's. You see one-determine what is causing it and go from there.

Upper vorticity is basically the jet stream. Always a factor in shear values. Plus, what happens up top drives the surface features-(eventually lol)
Member Since: September 11, 2007 Posts: 137 Comments: 15297
Quoting stillwaiting:
nuetral,nuetral,nuetral,IMO....


I think that the latest cool blast locked neutral in for sure. Again IMO.
both
Member Since: June 29, 2007 Posts: 0 Comments: 1135
Dr Jeff.. save me.. post a new Blog... please.
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Do we watch the vorticity at the surface or higher levels? (when watching for development of tropical systems)
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834. beell
As long as we are stuck in this :
Ridge over the GOM, Trough over the ECoast/Caribbean, Ridge over the eastern Caribbean, and now, another upper level trough in the central ATL( followed by another ridge)-shear will remain high over the MDR for the most part.



200mb vorticity
Member Since: September 11, 2007 Posts: 137 Comments: 15297
Quoting Orcasystems:


Oh man... I will get even with squish28 :)

Revenge is a dish best served cold.
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People have to remember its only June.
Even in 2008 we didn't see a single storm form in June. Arthur formed in May and crossed over to June.
Bertha formed July 3rd and we had 3 systems in July, the most since 2005.
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About JeffMasters

Jeff co-founded the Weather Underground in 1995 while working on his Ph.D. He flew with the NOAA Hurricane Hunters from 1986-1990.