Sea level rise

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Definition of Sea Level Rise:
The term sea-level rise generally designates the average long-term global rise of the ocean surface measured from the centre of the earth (or more precisely, from the earth reference ellipsoid), as derived from satellite observations. Relative sea-level rise refers to long-term average sea-level rise relative to the local land level, as derived from coastal tide gauges.
This is the common definition for Sea Level Rise, other definitions can be discussed in the article

Contributions to sea-level rise

Sea levels are highly variable over periods ranging from seconds to decades. Sea-level rise is the rising trend averaged over longer periods, which is observed at many coastal stations since a few centuries. It is almost certain that global warming due to human emissions of greenhouse gases is responsible for steepening this trend since at least a few decades. The most recent projections for future sea-level rise are presented in the Special IPCC Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate (2019)[1]. This report is an update of the previous IPCC AR5 report (2013) [2], and includes newer insights in the response of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets to global warming. It also provides an estimation of the possible sea-level rise up to the year 2030, see Fig. 1. Two scenarios for greenhouse gas emissions are considered in this figure: (1) a "low" scenario, called RCP2.6, with strong reduction of global greenhouse gas emission, such that global warming will probably not exceed 2 oC; (2) a "high" scenario, called RCP8.5, in which no measures are taken to limit greenhouse gas emissions ('business as usual'). The high scenario can lead to a rise of up to 5 m of the global average sea level in 2300, but with great uncertainty.

Figure 1. Projections of possible sea-level rise for the low and high emission scenarios, RCP2.6 (blue) and RCP8.5 (red), respectively. The shaded areas indicate the uncertainty in the projections. Figure from (IPCC, 2019)[1].

Several phenomena contribute to sea-level rise. On a global scale, sea-level rise is mainly due to an increase of the water mass and water volume of the oceans. This global sea-level rise (often termed Eustatic sea-level rise) has three components:

(1) thermal expansion of ocean waters related to decrease of the density (also referred to as thermo-steric component of sea-level rise, related to increasing temperature),

(2) water mass increase, which is mainly due to melting of mountain glaciers and decrease of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets, and

(3) decreasing storage of surface water and groundwater on land.

Other phenomena can substantially influence sea levels at regional scale, inducing either sea-level rise or sea-level fall [2]. Most important are:

(4) earth crust motions - in particular the solid Earth deformation in response to mass reduction of the polar ice caps and concomitant water loading of the seabed, the so-called glacial isostatic adjustment (GIA); the response time scale of GIA (from decades to millennia) strongly depends on the local viscoelasticity of the earth mantle[3],

(5) changes in the earth gravitational field, related in particular to decrease of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets,

(6) ubiquitous land surface subsidence related in particular to extraction of groundwater and oil/gas mining and compaction of soft deltaic soils[4],

(7) regional atmospheric pressure anomalies and changes in the strength and distribution of ocean currents (so-called Dynamic Sea Level Change), related in particular to the coupled ocean-atmosphere dynamics, and

(8) regional sea-level change related to changes in seawater salinity.

Due to these phenomena, sea-level rise is not uniform around the globe, but differs from place to place. Relative sea-level rise is the locally observed rise of the average sea level with respect to the land level. It is the sum of the components (1-8).

Observed sea-level rise

Trends in sea-level from world-wide available tide gauge records and from satellite altimetry have been analyzed by Church and White (2011) [5]. The tide gauge data were corrected for vertical land surface motion, by using estimates for glacial isostatic adjustment (but ignoring other causes of vertical land motion). From these corrected tide gauge data, a linear trend of 1.7 ± 0.2 mm/year sea-level rise was found for the period 1900 to 1990 and a linear trend of 2.8 ± 0.8 mm/year for the period 1990 to 2009.

Trend analyses of regularly updated satellite data can be viewed at the NOAA site [6] for global and regional sea-level changes around the world. Satellite altimeter data cover all the ocean basins. However, they do not replace tide gauge data because altimeter data are not reliable close to the land[7].

The satellite data display substantial regional differences in sea level rise. Important causes are[8]:

  • Glacial Isostatic adjustment (elastic solid Earth deformation) and self-gravitation related to changes in land ice mass;
  • Dynamic Sea Level Change, which is related to medium and long-term changes in ocean circulation patterns and the atmospheric pressure distribution, including local anomalous changes in seawater density (mainly related to local fresh water input and local water temperature).

There is overwhelming evidence that the global sea level has risen faster during the past decades than in the past century. While sea-level rise is estimated at 1-2 mm/year during the past century[1][9], the estimate of the present sea-level rise (2019) ranges between 3 and 4 mm/year, with an acceleration rate of 0.12±0.07 mm yr-2 [1][10][11][12]. The estimated global sea-level rise for the past decades (1993-2017) is primarily based on satellite altimeter data and estimates of different contributions to the ocean water budget (especially melt of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets). A much higher than average sea-level rise is observed in the Indian Ocean–Eastern Pacific region. This regional anomaly has a strong impact on the estimate for the global sea-level rise[9]. However, uncertainties remain in the calibration of the satellite altimeter data. A much lower acceleration rate of 0.018 ± 0.016 mm yr-2 has been found by Kleinherenbrink et al. (2019[13]), based on a reanalysis of calibration drifts in the satellite altimeter data. Fig. 2 shows the sea-level data of 6 tide gauge stations along the Dutch coast, corrected for soil subsidence[14]. No significant acceleration of sea-level rise is visible in these data. This can be partly due to changes in the gravitational field (the influence of the decreasing ice mass of Greenland may account for a 0.9 mm/year sea-level decrease along the Dutch coast), but the difference with the global 3-4 mm/year sea-level rise cannot be fully explained. An analysis of other tide gauge stations in the North-Atlantic region yields a similar picture[15].

Figure 2. Sea level data of 6 tide gauge station along the Dutch coast (Vlissingen, Hoek van Holland, IJmuiden, Den Helder, Harlingen, Delfzijl)[14]. For each station, the data are corrected for the known soil subsidence (0.24-0.6 mm/year). The green line is the linear trend, the wavy/wiggling line takes into account the estimated influence of long-term fluctuations in the wind field and in the tide (the 18.6-year lunar nodal component), the light green shaded area is the 95% prediction interval and the red and blue lines and corresponding shaded areas are the 2014 sea-level rise projections of the Dutch Meteorological Institute.

Annual and decadal sea level fluctuations

Table 1. Major coupled ocean-atmosphere oscillation modes[16].
Region Oscillation mode Acronym Main periodicity range [year]
Pacific El Nino Southern Oscillation ENSO 2-7
Pacific Decadal Oscillation PDO 15-75
North Pacific Gyre Oscillation NPGO 15-40
Indian Ocean Indian Ocean Basin Mode DIOB 2-20
Indian Ocean Dipole IOD 8-25
Atlantic Ocean North Atlantic Oscillation NAO 2-8
Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation AMO 60-80
Arctic Ocean Arctic Oscillation AO 2-12
Antarctic Ocean Southern Annular Mode SAM 8-16

The data in Fig. 2, representing averages of the annual mean sea level at 6 stations in the southern part of the North Sea, exhibit differences between consecutive years which are often greater than 10 cm. The figure shows that long-term fluctuations in the annual mean wind field in the southern North Sea can explain part of the fluctuations. The remaining part should probably be attributed to the inverse barometer effect in response to fluctuations in the atmospheric pressure and to larger scale phenomena associated e.g. to the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO) or other large-scale interaction phenomena between ocean and atmospheric dynamics[17].

Large-scale ocean-atmosphere interactions occur in all oceans, for example the well-known El Nino Southern Oscillation (ENSO) in the Tropical Pacific. Some components of these large-scale interactions involve timescales up to several decades, see Table 1. Multiannual oscillations in ocean surface levels associated with large-scale ocean circulations can be quite substantial, according to satellite observations and coupled ocean-atmosphere simulation models[16]. However, transmission across the continental slope is largely inhibited for oscillations at sub-basin scales[18], see also Shelf sea exchange with the ocean. Sea level fluctuations in the coastal zone are mainly related to fluctuations in local atmospheric conditions; this holds especially for coastal zones situated on a wide continental shelf[17]. Observation records from coastal tide gauges or from satellite observations should cover at least several decades in order to determine long-term trends.

Projections of future sea-level rise

Many model studies have been conducted to predict future sea-levels. Different forecasts of future sea levels display a large spread. This is due to uncertainty regarding future emissions of greenhouse gases, to shortcomings in the present understanding of climate dynamics (including ocean-atmosphere interaction) and to restrictions imposed on model grid scales. All models predict an increase of the rate of sea-level rise. Projections for the main components of sea-level rise according to different scenarios and different models are presented in Table 2.

Sea-level rise lags behind global warming. Even if greenhouse gas emissions would stop today, sea levels will continue rising for at least a century [19]. In the hypothetical case that there will be no greenhouse gas emissions from now on, sea levels will be 0.7-1.2 m higher in 2300 than in 2000 [20].

Uncertainties related to melting of the polar ice sheets

Table 2. Typical ranges of projected sea-level rise (SLR) by each of the main SLR components for the year 2100 compared to 1985-2005, according to IPCC Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate (2019) [1].
sea-level rise component SLR range [m]

low IPCC scenario (RCP2.6)

SLR range [m]

high IPCC scenario (RCP8.5)

Thermal expansion 0.1 - 0.18 0.21 – 0.33
Mountain glaciers 0.07 - 0.12 0.15 - 0.25
Greenland ice sheet 0.04 - 0.12 0.08 – 0.27
Antarctic ice sheet 0.01 - 0.11 0.03 – 0.28
Total SLR 0.29 - 0.59 0.61 – 1.1

It has been suggested that the contributions from the Antarctic to sea-level rise could be much larger when considering structural collapse of the marine-terminated ice cliffs and disintegration of the West Antarctic ice sheet after removal of the ice shelves[21][22]. This could contribute to an additional sea-level rise of 1 m in 2100 and up to 15 m in 2500. However, some doubts exist whether marine ice-cliff instability is a realistic scenario [23].

Studies by Hansen et al. (2016) [24] and Golledge et al. (2019)[25] based on modelling and paleoclimate records point to a feedback process that can enhance melting of the Antarctic ice sheet and produce additional sea-level rise. This feedback process is triggered by increasing amounts of fresh meltwater from the polar ice sheets that strengthen ocean stratification, reduce the sinking of Antarctic cold water and decrease the ocean heat flux to the atmosphere. This results in sequestration of warm deep water and enhanced melting of the Antarctic ice sheets. These authors also predict a slowing of the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation (AMOC) due to increasing meltwater outflow from the Greenland ice sheet, with possibly important consequences for the North Atlantic Gulfstream and the climate of northwestern Europe. A more detailed discussion is presented in the articles Ocean circulation and Thermohaline circulation of the oceans.

Another issue is the observed retreat of the grounding line (boundary between grounded and floating ice) of the Antarctic ice sheet[26]. Ongoing retreat of the grounding line will accelerate melting and destabilize the Antarctic ice sheet. However, decrease of the ice mass will induce feedback effects. Evidence from observations and model simulations suggests that ongoing retreat of the grounding line could be reduced or even reversed when considering the combined effects of sea level fall due to a decrease of gravitational attraction and rebound of the solid Earth[27][28]. A fine-grid model that explicitly resolves ocean eddies yields a more realistic Southern Ocean temperature distribution and volume transport; the simulated Antarctic mass loss in this model is three times lower than with earlier coarse-grid models[29]. These different results and hypotheses explain the great uncertainty margins in the sea level projections shown in Table 2.

Extreme sea levels

Most coastal zones are more vulnerable to extreme sea levels than to the mean sea level. This holds in particular for coasts situated on broad continental shelves (North Sea, East China Sea, for example) where extreme levels are much higher than the mean sea level, due to amplification of the ocean tides and water-level setup by strong winds (storm surges). Rise of the local mean sea level is always the major component of the projected rise of the local extreme sea level (for any given long return period), although climate-induced change in extreme wind and wave conditions can influence extreme sea levels significantly in some regions[30][31]. Climate models predict, for example, that extreme wind and wave conditions will be less frequent along the eastern African coast, whereas in northern Europe (especially the Baltic region in the RCP8.5 scenario[32]) extreme levels will increase more than the mean sea level.

Sea-level rise does not only affect extreme sea levels, but also the average return period. This will be the case in particular for coasts situated close to the deep ocean, where sea levels are less influenced by storm surges, and for coasts outside the zone of tropical cyclones. For these coasts the average return period of extreme sea levels will strongly decrease; in many cases a reduction of a factor greater than 100 is projected in the IPCC scenario RCP8.5 in 2100: a once in 100 year extreme sea level will become a yearly event. For coasts situated on broad continental shelves where extreme levels are much higher than the mean sea level, the average return period will be reduced by a factor 10 or more [30][1]. For uplifting coasts the reduction of the average return period will be less, because of a smaller relative mean sea-level rise.

Impact of sea-level rise

Sea-level rise will have a great impact, in particular on low-lying coastal regions, such as river deltas and coral islands[33][34]. Delta coasts and coral islands are shaped under the influence of marine geomorphological and biotic processes; their natural elevation is therefore around the present high water level – not much higher and sometimes lower. Many low-lying coastal zones are densely populated and host large cities; a large number of coastal megacities are located in developing countries [35]. The number of people living below the annual high water level by 2020 is estimated at about 110 million globally; this number could rise by 2100 to 190 million in a low-emission scenario and to 630 million in a high-emission scenario[36]. In densely populated coastal zones, sea-level rise is often exacerbated by soil compaction and land subsidence in connection with drainage works and the extraction of groundwater or oil / gas mining, see Coastal cities and sea level rise. The vulnerability is further enhanced by coastal erosion, because of sediment retention behind upstream dams, hard coastal structures and/or conversion of mangrove forests to aquacultures [37], see also Human causes of coastal erosion. Considerable investments are required for adapting these vulnerable coastal zones to sea-level rise, in particular to reduce flooding risks [38].

Sea-level rise enhances shoreline retreat (for retreating coasts) or reduces shoreline progradation (for accreting coasts), see Natural causes of coastal erosion. The influence of sea-level rise on the shoreline position of sandy barrier coasts can be estimated by means of the Bruun rule [39]. Sea-level rise also threatens coastal wetlands, which may not be capable to keep pace with sea level and be partly lost due to so-called coastal squeeze. This can be the case for mudflats and salt marshes in the Wadden Sea [40] and for mangrove forests in the tropics and subtropics, see Potential Impacts of Sea Level Rise on Mangroves.

Salt intrusion is another major impact of sea-level rise in low-lying river deltas around the world. This impact is compounded by soil subsidence and by reduced fresh water supply to the coastal zone due to upstream diversion of river water for irrigation and other uses. Salt intrusion threatens crucially important fresh groundwater reservoirs in arid regions, for example in the Nile Delta [41]. Relative sea-level rise also causes loss of fertile agricultural land in the coastal hinterland by increased salt seepage to surface waters [42], with great economic and social consequences[43]. Salt intrusion further affects drinking water availability in densely urbanized coastal regions. For more detailed information, see Groundwater management in low-lying coastal zones.

Strategies for dealing with the impacts of sea-level rise depend on local conditions. Different strategies are reviewed in recent IPCC Assessment reports[34] [44][1]. See also the article Climate adaptation measures for the coastal zone.

See also

Coastal Wiki articles in Category: Climate change, impacts and adaptation


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Citation: Job Dronkers (2021): Sea level rise. Available from [accessed on 19-06-2021]