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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Quoting tornadofan:

BLEH! I don't like that. Why couldn't this just fizzle away, and give us all a full month of bickering and blob-watching?
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Quoting Vortex95:


I could continue all day but I'll be nice.

On behalf of the rest of the bloggers here... thank you.
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UNYSIS 10-day GFSx
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Quoting kimoskee:
With the spin etc. south of Jamaica...what's the forecast for Kingston, Jamaica?
Is this rain going to hang around until the weekend?


As of Sunday night the WU forcast for it said 75 mph winds forcasted for Friday. It was out to lunch.
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Quoting Vortex95:


Mr. sir drak sir I believe in a multiverse so which universe would be succumbed to this diabolicle inferno?



The one that encompasses your body only.
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Quoting Vortex95:


Mr. sir drak sir I believe in a multiverse so which universe would be succumbed to this diabolicle inferno?


Yours.
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Quoting Vortex95:


But mr. sir drak sir what TYPE of heat is it? is a low heat, medium heat, high heat, or nuclear heat? I may have to evacuate the blog if there's too much heat!!!


Universe-shattering heat.
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Quoting RTLSNK:

OK - OZ, don't let this go to your head, I still am against you playing chicken with a hurricane, but man can you write some kind of great poetry.



It was definitely a magnficent morning here in the high desert mountains of northern New Mexico. While sitting on the front porch with my hound in the still quiet of the morning rain, I found myself enthralled and I was inspired.

I appreciate the compliment, though I personally believe I make better hurricane videos than poetry these days.
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Quoting Levi32:


Models are only decent at forecasting upper-air patterns maybe 5 days out, but we all know they get unreliable pretty fast. But it doesn't take a genius and it doesn't take a computer to see how the pattern is setting up that will allow lower shear to develop over the western Caribbean in 3-5 days.


Thanks
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Quoting weathermanwannabe:
As Ike noted this morning, sheer is very high in the tropics right now, as it should be this time of the year, so nothing significant will happen until the sheer relaxes somewhere...How good are these models many are talking about in terms of sheer predictions several days out?


Models are only decent at forecasting upper-air patterns maybe 5 days out, but we all know they get unreliable pretty fast. But it doesn't take a genius and it doesn't take a computer to see how the pattern is setting up that will allow lower shear to develop over the western Caribbean in 3-5 days.
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As Ike noted this morning, sheer is very high in the tropics right now, as it should be this time of the year, so nothing significant will happen until the sheer relaxes somewhere...How good are these models many are talking about in terms of sheer predictions several days out?
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With the spin etc. south of Jamaica...what's the forecast for Kingston, Jamaica?
Is this rain going to hang around until the weekend?
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I doubt that the trough weakness east of Florida in 5 days is going to be able to knab anything in the Caribbean. It's just not what the pattern is right now. The area of convection over Panama will be moving NW towards the coast of Honduras and that's where we have to watch for development that will probably make a run at the Yucatan whether it's a TC or not.
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Quoting tornadofan:


Don't they have Internet in Europe? He can keep posting blogs, right? :)


To put what sporteguy03 said another way...

If you had the choice between spending an hour or two making a blog entry, or enjoying your first european vacation... I'm thinking that you wouldn't be sitting in front of a computer.

Plenty of good, knowledgeable bloggers on here, for your tropical weather fix.
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Quoting Weather456:
There is a strong tropical wave currently near 45W which is expected to reach the Caribbean soon. Highly doubt development for now.

Probably when it get pass the leeward islands. I highly doubt that it will develop, and we probably will not have a TD or TS until probably another week or two.
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159. JRRP
well....
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Considering a significant low is not expected to develop until 3-4 days from now, Avila is justified in that TWO.
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Quoting Orcasystems:


Vortex actually vouched for you the other day... said you were a nice person.... I am starting to wonder :(

See! Its not just me that has a cruel streak.

I'm saving my post for around entry number 400 or so.
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Quoting IKE:
TROPICAL WEATHER OUTLOOK
NWS TPC/NATIONAL HURRICANE CENTER MIAMI FL
200 PM EDT WED JUN 10 2009

FOR THE NORTH ATLANTIC...CARIBBEAN SEA AND THE GULF OF MEXICO...

TROPICAL CYCLONE FORMATION IS NOT EXPECTED DURING THE NEXT 48 HOURS.

$$
FORECASTER AVILA
I have seen this change within a few hours before.
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There is a strong tropical wave currently near 45W which is expected to reach the Caribbean soon. Highly doubt development for now.
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154. IKE
TWD at 2:05 PM EDST.....

A TROPICAL WAVE IS OVER THE CENTRAL CARIBBEAN S OF 20N ALONG 81W
MOVING W AROUND 15 KT. SCATTERED MODERATE CONVECTION IS E OF THE
WAVE AXIS FROM 15N-18N BETWEEN 75W-80W AND SCATTERED MODERATE TO
STRONG CONVECTION IS FROM 8N-11N BETWEEN 75W-78W WITH ADDITIONAL
CONVECTION IN THE E PACIFIC REGION. ALL OF THIS CONVECTION IS
ALSO BEING SUPPORTED BY UPPER LEVEL DIFFLUENCE OVER THE
CARIBBEAN. CURRENT POSITION IS BASED ON CONTINUITY AND A SURFACE
WIND SHIFT SEEN IN AVAILABLE SURFACE OBSERVATIONS.
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Quoting JRRP:
INVEST east of antilles ??


The CMC is living up to its reputation, trying to develop the central Atlantic wave. Development of the wave, if any, would be after it gets into the Caribbean. Everything east of the islands is getting sheared due to the TUTT in the central Atlantic.
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152. IKE
TROPICAL WEATHER OUTLOOK
NWS TPC/NATIONAL HURRICANE CENTER MIAMI FL
200 PM EDT WED JUN 10 2009

FOR THE NORTH ATLANTIC...CARIBBEAN SEA AND THE GULF OF MEXICO...

TROPICAL CYCLONE FORMATION IS NOT EXPECTED DURING THE NEXT 48 HOURS.

$$
FORECASTER AVILA
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Quoting tornadofan:


Don't they have Internet in Europe? He can keep posting blogs, right? :)


He could, I'm sure, I am not sure blogging will be on the top of his list on vacation, lol.
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150. JRRP
INVEST east of antilles ??
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I dont disagree, there are alot of people on here who need policing. I just happen to think that is best left up to admin and mods and on that note i will do just that. :-)
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Quoting Drakoen:


The size of the system is what you didn't mention. If the system were to intensify any more than what those models are showing it would easily get pulled to the northeast.


Possibly, but I doubt it would be further east than 80W. It's very hard to get these systems out of the Caribbean without touching the Gulf of Mexico.
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My first named storm is supposed to happened tomorrow. Anything out there?
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Quoting IKE:


He would have a cat 5 hitting Lauderdale.


I think he'd invent a new category - Cat 6 hits Ft. L, and sits and spins directly over his house for a week.
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Quoting sporteguy03:
85.
Dr.Masters have a safe trip! Do you have a guest blogger filling in for updates while you are away?


Don't they have Internet in Europe? He can keep posting blogs, right? :)
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Quoting Levi32:


We keep saying the same things 30 seconds apart lol.


The size of the system is what you didn't mention. If the system were to intensify any more than what those models are showing it would easily get pulled to the northeast.
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143. IKE
Quoting CaneWarning:


JFV will be the guest blogger.


He would have a cat 5 hitting Lauderdale.
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Quoting sporteguy03:
85.
Dr.Masters have a safe trip! Do you have a guest blogger filling in for updates while you are away?


JFV will be the guest blogger.
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Quoting Drakoen:


The model has the area of high pressure advecting to the north and east. The system gets caught under the lower to mid level ridge not feeling the weakness over Florida. Both the CMC and NOGAPS have the diameter of the 500mb vorticity relatively small and that makes it more susceptible to the ridge than the trough.


We keep saying the same things 30 seconds apart lol.
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Quoting canesrule1:
Jeff Masters,
Do you believe anything will form tropically in the upcoming days?

Thanks,
CanesRule1

I think in his blog he said western Caribbean in about a week.
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Trust me JFV deserves the heat he gets for what he pulled last season but onto bigger and better things. Tropics have been somewhat boring as of late. Dr Masters going on vacation is almost a guaranteee it will heat up while hes gone.
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Quoting Orcasystems:


Vortex actually vouched for you the other day... said you were a nice person.... I am starting to wonder :(


Yikes, I feel intimidated by higher expectations now.

Anyhoo, it's all in good fun.
Member Since: September 22, 2005 Posts: 18 Comments: 2343
Quoting Levi32:
The 12z CMC and NOGAPS look a little too fast to me. The CMC track also looks weird, considering there's a blocking high over the NW Gulf of Mexico


The model has the area of high pressure advecting to the north and east. The system gets caught under the lower to mid level ridge not feeling the weakness over Florida. Both the CMC and NOGAPS have the diameter of the 500mb vorticity relatively small and that makes it more susceptible to the ridge than the trough.
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Good afternoon!
If Dr. Masters is going on vacation, then something will definitely spin up.
We're in a drier cycle here in Florida than we've seen in a while. That also means things are heating up!
It will be interesting to see whether we have a full-fledged El Nino or a weaker one. Looks like everyone's pretty much agreed it isn't going to be a neutral season (hence higher activity), as previously thought.
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Quoting Drakoen:
The track on the CMC and NOGAPS is odd considering there will be a weakness over Florida with a mid to upper level trough.


I think they're seeing the upper trough pulling out and the weakness starts to get closed off in 5 days. They probably think the eastward flow on the south flank of the high over the GOM will grab anything that's there and take it west, although the CMC looks too far north.
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Orca:
No. Some of us saw what you did and will continue to hold it over your head.
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I agree drak...I get your humor.
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Quoting SavannahStorm:


no, its not safe. :P


Vortex actually vouched for you the other day... said you were a nice person.... I am starting to wonder :(
Member Since: October 1, 2007 Posts: 81 Comments: 26511

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