Steady Sea Level Rise Acceleration

A few hundred billion tons of glacial ice is melting every year due to the effects of climate change. This threatens to lead to a sea level rise that may create a future migration crisis far worse than any others in the recent era.

Global sea level rise is not cruising along at a steady 3 mm per year, it’s accelerating a little every year, like a driver merging onto a highway, according to a powerful new assessment led by CIRES Fellow Steve Nerem. He and his colleagues harnessed 25 years of satellite data to calculate that the rate is increasing by about 0.08 mm/year every year — which could mean an annual rate of sea level rise of 10 mm/year, or even more, by 2100.

“This acceleration, driven mainly by accelerated melting in Greenland and Antarctica, has the potential to double the total sea level rise by 2100 as compared to projections that assume a constant rate — to more than 60 cm instead of about 30.” said Nerem, who is also a professor of Aerospace Engineering Sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder. “And this is almost certainly a conservative estimate,” he added. “Our extrapolation assumes that sea level continues to change in the future as it has over the last 25 years. Given the large changes we are seeing in the ice sheets today, that’s not likely.”

If the oceans continue to change at this pace, sea level will rise 65cm (26 inches) by 2100 — enough to cause significant problems for coastal cities, according to the new assessment by Nerem and several colleagues from CU Boulder, the University of South Florida, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Old Dominion University, and the National Center for Atmospheric Research. The team, driven to understand and better predict Earth’s response to a warming world, published their work today in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Rising concentrations of greenhouse gases in Earth’s atmosphere increase the temperature of air and water, which causes sea level to rise in two ways. First, warmer water expands, and this “thermal expansion” of the oceans has contributed about half of the 7 cm of global mean sea level rise we’ve seen over the last 25 years, Nerem said. Second, melting land ice flows into the ocean, also increasing sea level across the globe.