Tuesday, July 29, 2014

More than 2.5m Sea Level Rise by 2040?

A warming period more than 400,000 years ago pushed the Greenland ice sheet past its stability threshold (which may have been no more than several degrees above pre-industrial temperatures). This resulted in a nearly complete deglaciation of southern Greenland, raising global sea levels some 4.5-6 meters, found a recent study by Reyes et al. Due to melting elsewhere, global mean sea level then was 6 to 13 metres above the present level. Indeed, melting of the entire West Antarctic Ice Sheet can add a further 6-meter rise in sea levels. If the East Antarctic Ice Sheet (EAIS) were to melt as well, sea levels would rise by around 70 metres.

Sea level is now rising by 3.1mm (0.122 inch) per year. Much of this rise is due to rising temperatures, but there are also other factors. One quarter of the rise results from groundwater depletion, while run off from melting ice and glaciers adds another quarter and the remainder is attributed to thermal expansion of sea water. Furthermore, as temperatures rise, feedbacks start to kick in, e.g. the kinetic energy from stronger waves and more intense storms can speed things up.

Clearly, a rapid multi-meter rise would be devastating as it would flood many coastal cities, as well as much of the land now used to grow food. By how much have sea levels been rising recently and how fast can they be expected to rise in the near future?
NASA image, data by the JPL PODAAC, in support of the NASA's MEaSUREs program.
Sea levels have risen by some 60 mm over the past 20 years, as above NASA image shows, which has a linear trendline added. The question is whether a linear trendline is the most appropriate trendline, given that it suggests that a similar rise could be expected over the next 20 years. A polynomial trendline appears to fit the data better, as the animation below shows.

Such a polynomial trendline, however, points at a similar rise (of some 50 mm) in just four years time, with an even more steeper rise to follow, as illustrated by the image below.

And indeed, such a rise doesn't slow down there. A polynomial trendline applied to the data points at a sea level rise of more than 2.5 m (8.2 ft) by the year 2040.

The image below gives an idea of what a sea level rise of six feet (1.829 m) would do to the City of New York. Of course, this is only the sea level rise. Storm surge would come on top of this, as discussed at Ten Dangers of Global Warming.

So, what would be more appropriate, to expect sea levels to continue to rise in a linear way, or to take into account feedbacks that could speed things up? Where such feedbacks could lead to is illustrated by the image below.
[ from: How many deaths could result from failure to act on climate change? click on image to enlarge ]
This calls for comprehensive and effective action, as discussed at the Climate Plan blog.


- South Greenland ice-sheet collapse during Marine Isotope Stage 11, Reyes et al. (2014)

- Nonsustainable groundwater sustaining irrigation: A global assessment, Yoshihide Wada et al. (2012)

- Groundwater Depletion Linked to Rising Sea Levels

- Assessment of the Jason-2 Extension to the TOPEX/Poseidon, Jason-1 Sea-Surface Height Time Series for Global Mean Sea Level Monitoring, Beckley et al. (2010)

- Feedbacks in the Arctic

- How many deaths could result from failure to act on climate change? (2014)


  1. Thanks Sam, just what I wanted to see. As usual, great, clear work.

  2. Chaotically exponentiating synergies are afoot here rendering most models into a cruel deception. The math has to catch up with all the feedback or we won't know what to believe about anybody's predictions about any of it before long.

  3. Since I live in New Orleans, this is certainly not good news! A 2.5m (8.0 ft) SLR by 2040 means that subsequently, and maybe a little before, the first major hurricane that comes by this city means it gets whacked. Severely whacked, with flooding worse than from Katrina.