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 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
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
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85.
Dr.Masters have a safe trip! Do you have a guest blogger filling in for updates while you are away?
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Quoting Orcasystems:
1705. Orcasystems 1:23 PM GMT on June 10, 2009

Quoting IKE:


LOL!


:(



We are in desperate need of a new Blog :(
Its getting so slow.. he might even mention GW just to Heat things up a bit (pun intended).


I should be taken out and shot :(


no, its not safe. :P
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The track on the CMC and NOGAPS is odd considering there will be a weakness over Florida with a mid to upper level trough.
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Is it safe to come out of hiding yet??
Member Since: October 1, 2007 Posts: 81 Comments: 26511
12Z CMC FSU
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Quoting Levi32:


That's the only 12z CMC I could find off the top of my head and it's not closed at 72 hours there.


Ok the FSU site updated. CMC does form a tropical cyclone.
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Quoting Levi32:


That's the only 12z CMC I could find off the top of my head and it's not closed at 72 hours there.


It is closed around 72hrs on the fsu page.
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It's funny that I get called rude but a troll that consistently makes detrimental comments is not. Choose your sides wisely.
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Quoting Drakoen:


It does develop into a closed low.


That's the only 12z CMC I could find off the top of my head and it's not closed at 72 hours there.
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NOGAPS 12z has development as well.
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It looks like this low is forecasted by the models to initiate as a northern extension of the Columbian Low. The amplification and moisture surge of the tropical wave moving through in combination with the retreating upper trough is probably what will draw it northward.
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Quoting Levi32:


Yeah not a closed low but there is a mass of upward motion and moisture near Jamaica at 72 hours. Link


It does develop into a closed low.
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always so rude, sheesh
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It is not hitting on JFV; it is enjoying the humor. JFV will always be someone to mess with. If you can't take the heat get out of the kitchen.
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What did JFV stand for anyway?
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Quoting futuremet:
12Z CMC also develops something--about time.


Yeah not a closed low but there is a mass of upward motion and moisture near Jamaica at 72 hours. Link
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Afternoon WS
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You guys are making JFV a superstar. lol
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Jeff Masters,
Do you believe anything will form tropically in the upcoming days?

Thanks,
CanesRule1
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Quoting hurricaneseason2006:
Interesting W456.

Drak, why you always got to be hitting on JFV so much. To be honest, you are knowledgeable but the only reason I've been on you was because of how you treat others on here. Your ego is the size of Jupiter and it is only exceeded by your arrogance. Leave JFV alone and if you cannot forgive him like others have then just ignore him.


I suggest you keep a blind eye and just blog. That's the best way to get along the blog. And take it from me! lol
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Quoting JeffMasters:


Yes, I am leaving Sunday for my first-ever European vacation, a 2-week trip to London and Kefallonia Island, Greece. I trust there will be plenty of tropical action to follow during the time I'm gone! I'll post an last half-of-June outlook on Friday or Saturday before I go.

Jeff Masters


That sounds like a fantastic vacation. Have fun!
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deleted
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12Z CMC also develops something--about time.
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Good morning all.

Tropical Tidbit for June 10th
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12Z NOGAPS is quite run...
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Quoting weathermanwannabe:


You sound like JFV with the "Sir"...Lol


That was my intention bud
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Quoting Drakoen:


Good punctuation there sir!


You sound like JFV with the "Sir"...Lol
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Broad area of low pressure in the SW Caribbean





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Quoting JeffMasters:


Yes, I am leaving Sunday for my first-ever European vacation, a 2-week trip to London and Kefallonia Island, Greece. I trust there will be plenty of tropical action to follow during the time I'm gone! I'll post an last half-of-June outlook on Friday or Saturday before I go.

Jeff Masters


Good punctuation there sir!
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Quoting DaytonaBeachWatcher:
85. JeffMasters (Admin) 12:27 PM EDT on June 10, 2009
Quoting sporteguy03:
Dr.Masters,
Do you have any big vacations coming up? Then the tropics will heat up!


Yes, I am leaving Sunday for my first-ever European vacation, a 2-week trip to London and Kefallonia Island, Greece. I trust there will be plenty of tropical action to follow during the time I'm gone! I'll post an last half-of-June outlook on Friday or Saturday before I go.


Well as we all know, for sure there will be activity while doc is gone!!!! Where will it be?


I must say, it happens all the time. As soon as he leaves he get a Tropical Depression or Storm.
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OK, this blog is about water. There was something incredible said about water on the last blog that I think, in my humble opinion, needs to be quoted before it is lost in blog history. It was the following:

1691. CycloneOz
"Through the night came the rains, soaking all things to be seen in the dim morning light. Life in the mountains, revitalized. One stares and wonders at nature's magnificence!"

1702. CycloneOz
"Bees are a buzz amongst the wildflowers that sing a new day with color. Rain moistened life, a steady pour has made green greener. The sounds of rejoicing fill the misty air."

1711. CycloneOz
"Puddle skippers at play shoo away bright birds that drank deeply. The high desert air softens. It rains without lightning, a sky-fed stream without thunder. Mountain morning comfort and contentment."

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.

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92. JRRP
2003

2004

2005

see u later
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1500 UTC low level winds

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85. JeffMasters (Admin) 12:27 PM EDT on June 10, 2009
Quoting sporteguy03:
Dr.Masters,
Do you have any big vacations coming up? Then the tropics will heat up!


Yes, I am leaving Sunday for my first-ever European vacation, a 2-week trip to London and Kefallonia Island, Greece. I trust there will be plenty of tropical action to follow during the time I'm gone! I'll post an last half-of-June outlook on Friday or Saturday before I go.


Well as we all know, for sure there will be activity while doc is gone!!!! Where will it be?
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Have a great trip Doctor........
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Quoting canesrule1:
no surface low


Not yet but an earlier posted map showed one forecasted in that area in the near future. The convection there now could be the start of it is all I'm saying.
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Quoting kmanislander:


A lot will depend on whether we have neutral or El Nino conditions. The jury is still out on that.


Speaking of this issue, and I forgot when the "parking" occurs, but are we nearing the A-B high summer set up for the Atlantic & Gulf ridging yet (or does it set later in July)? If high pressure continues over the Gulf and SE US (the Devil's High I beleive) we could end up with an, albeit temporary one subject to trof erosion later in the season, bridge accross the area offering some protection for Florida and the Gulf...
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Well looks like we'll have tropical heat up now!
Thanks Dr. Masters!!! lol
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85. JeffMasters (Admin)
Quoting sporteguy03:
Dr.Masters,
Do you have any big vacations coming up? Then the tropics will heat up!


Yes, I am leaving Sunday for my first-ever European vacation, a 2-week trip to London and Kefallonia Island, Greece. I trust there will be plenty of tropical action to follow during the time I'm gone! I'll post an last half-of-June outlook on Friday or Saturday before I go.

Jeff Masters
Back later
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Quoting K8eCane:


i think this season we may see the gulf a little more protected due to high pressure systems


A lot will depend on whether we have neutral or El Nino conditions. The jury is still out on that.
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Ahhh...Back to Blobs and Models for the time being...Lol.
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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.

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