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sea-level standard rise The case for a 2-metre
march 2012

Sea-level rise projections

Compiled by David Spratt

The case for a 2-metre to 2100 standard

Recent research, presented at the Copenhagen Climate Congress in March 2009, projected sea-level rise from 0.75 to 1.9 metres relative to 1990, with 1.11.2 metres the mid-range of the projection.
Source: Climate Change Risks to Australia's Coasts: A first pass national assessment, Australian Government, Canberra, November 2009

Sea-level rise larger than the 0.51.0 m range perhaps towards 1.5 m (i.e. at the upper range of the statistical projection of Rahmstorf 2007) cannot be ruled out. There is still considerable uncertainty surrounding estimates of future sea-level rise. Nearly all of these uncertainties, however, operate in one direction, towards higher rather than lower estimates One of the more dramatic consequences of modest increases in sea level is the disproportionately large increase in the frequency of extreme sea-level events associated with high tides and storm surges. A 0.5 m rise in mean sea-level could cause such extreme events to occur hundreds of times more frequently by the end of the century; an event that now happens once every hundred years would be likely to occur two or three times per year. Source: "Climate Change 2009: Faster change & more serious risks", W. Steffen, Australian Government, Canberra, May 2009 Current estimates of sea-level rise range from 0.50 m to over 2 m by 2100.
Source: Science Update 2009: November (issue 2), CSIRO/BoM/ Department of Climate Change, November 2009

Geological data indicate sea levels several metres above todays value, and average rates of sea-level rise of 1.6 m/century, at a time when global average temperature was similar to projections for the end of the 21st century. These results show that a change in sea level more rapid than present projections is credible and has occurred before.

Source: Briefing: A Post IPCC AR4 Update on Sea-Level Rise, Church, White, Hunter and Lambeck, ACE CRC/CSIRO/ANU/AAS, 2008

Several new estimates of sea level rise in the 21st century, which include new information on melting ice, have been published since the release of the IPCC report in 2007. These increases vary from 50 centimetres to up to 2 metres by 2100. Source: Understanding sea level rise and climate change, DSE Fact sheet, Victorian Government, Melbourne, June 2011

"On the basis of calculations presented here, we suggest that an improved estimate of the range of SLR to 2100 including increased ice dynamics lies between 0.8 and 2.0 m. these values give a context and starting point for refinements in SLR forecasts on the basis of clearly defined assumptions and offer a more plausible range of estimates than those neglecting the dominant ice dynamics term.
Source: Kinematic Constraints on Glacier Contributions to 21st-Century Sea-Level Rise, Pfeffer et al., Science, 321: 1340-1343.

For future global temperature scenarios of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's Fourth Assessment Report, the relationship projects a sealevel rise ranging from 75 to 190 cm for the period 19902100. Source: Global sea level linked to global temperature, Vermeer and Rahmstorf, PNAS, 106:21527-21532 The range of future climate-induced sea-level rise remains highly uncertain with continued concern that large increases in the twenty-first century cannot be ruled out. The biggest source of uncertainty is the response of the large ice sheets of Greenland and west Antarctica. Based on our analysis, a pragmatic estimate of sea-level rise by 2100, for a temperature rise of 4C or more over the same time frame, is between 0.5m and 2m the probability of rises at the high end is judged to be very low, but of unquantifiable probability Climate-induced rise of relative sea level during the twenty-first century could be larger than the widely reported absolute numbers published by the IPCC AR4, and a rise of up to 2m is not implausible but of unquantifiable probability.
Source: Sea-level rise and its possible impacts given a 'beyond 4C world' in the twenty-first century, Nicholls, Marinova et al., Phil. Trans. R. Soc. A 2011 369: 161-181


The 2007 ICC Fourth Assessment Report projections on sea-level rise of 18-59 cms to 2100 were far too low because they did not make any allowance for melting of the polar icecaps. The IPCC report contained the following qualification: Because understanding of some important effects driving sealevel rise is too limited, this report does not assess the likelihood, nor provide a best estimate or an upper bound for sea level rise. It added that the official projected sea-level rise of 1859 centimetres this century did not include uncertainties in climate-carbon cycle feedbacks nor the full effects of changes in ice sheet flow, therefore the upper values of the ranges are not to be considered upper bounds for sea level rise. The relationship between the IPCC projections and more recent research is illustrated in Figure 1, adapted from Sea-level rise and its possible impacts
given a 'beyond 4C world' in the twenty-first century, Nicholls, Marinova et al., Phil. Trans. R. Soc. A 2011 369: 161-181

A 2009 study by Siddall et al. which suggested a sea-level rise of only 782 cms to 2100 (consistent with IPCC 2007), was withdrawn due to technical

Source: Constraints on future sea-level rise from past sea-level change, Siddall, Stocker et al., Nature Geoscience 2, 571 - 575

Ice sheet disintegration is nonlinear, spurred by amplifying feedbacks. We suggest that ice sheet mass loss, if warming continues unabated, will be characterized better by a doubling time for mass loss rate than by a linear trend. Satellite gravity data, though too brief to be conclusive, are consistent with a doubling time of 10 years or less, implying the possibility of multi-meter sea level rise this century Sea level rise, despite its potential importance, is one of the least well understood impacts of human-made climate change. The difficulty stems from the fact that ice sheet disintegration is a complex non-linear phenomenon that is inherently difficult to simulate, as well as from the absence of a good paleoclimate analogue for the rapidly increasing humanmade climate forcing.
Source: Hansen and Sato, Paleoclimate implications for human-made climate change in Climate Change: Inferences from Paleoclimate and Regional Aspects. Berger, Mesinger and ijai (Eds) Springer, in press,

However, it is difficult for us to say how long it will take ice sheets to respond to human-made climate forcing because there are no documented past changes of atmospheric CO2 nearly as rapid as the current humanmade change.
Source: Earth's Climate History: Implications for Tomorrow, Hansen and Sato, PaleoImplications.pdf

Pulses of extra melting and uplift imply that well experience pulses of extra sea level rise The process is not really a steady process.
Source: 2010 spike in Greenland ice loss lifted bedrock, GPS reveals, Ohio State University Research, 9 December 2011, archive/greenlift.htm

We use monthly measurements of time-variable gravity from the GRACE satellite gravity mission to determine the ice mass-loss for the Greenland and Antarctic Ice Sheets during the period between April 2002 and February 2009. We find that during this time period the mass loss of the ice sheets is not a constant, but accelerating with time, i.e., that the GRACE observations are better represented by a quadratic trend than by a linear one, implying that the

ice sheets contribution to sea level becomes larger with time.

Source: Increasing rates of ice mass loss from the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets revealed by GRACE, Velicogna, Geophys. Res. Lett., 36: L19503,

Many glaciers along the margins of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets are accelerating and, for this reason, contribute increasingly to global sea-level rise. Globally, ice losses contribute ~1.8mm/yr, but this could increase if the retreat of ice shelves and tidewater glaciers further enhances the loss of grounded ice or initiates the large-scale collapse of vulnerable parts of the ice sheets. Ice loss as a result of accelerated flow, known as dynamic thinning, is so poorly understood that its potential contribution to sea level over the twenty-first century remains unpredictable.
Source: Extensive dynamic thinning on the margins of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets, Pritchard, Arthern et al., Nature 461:971-975


The peak rate of deglaciation following the last Ice Age was about one meter [39 inches] of sea-level rise every 20 years, which was maintained for several centuries.
Source: Defusing the Global Warming Time Bomb, Dr James Hansen (Director NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies), Scientific American, March 2004

Note: A study of the Eemain (about 120,000 years ago) is important and gives an insight into conditions later this century, because during the Eemian the global mean temperature was less than 1C higher than today (Hansen and Sato, Paleoclimate implications for human-made climate change in Climate Change: Inferences from Paleoclimate and Regional Aspects. Berger, Mesinger and ijai (Eds) Springer, in press.) A study by Rohling et al concludes: We find average rates of sea-level rise of 1.6 m per century (during the last interglacial period 124 to 119 thousand years ago) with a full potential range for the rates of rise between 2.5 and 0.6 m per century As global mean temperatures during (this period) were comparable to projections for future climate change under the influence of anthropogenic greenhouse-gas emissions, these observed rates of sea-level change inform the ongoing debate about high versus low rates of sea-level rise in the coming century.
Source: High rates of sea-level rise during the last interglacial period, Rohling, Grant et al, Nature Geoscience 1, 38 - 42 (2008)

Note: Another study of the Eemian by Blancon et. al, examining the paleoclimate record, shows sea level rises of 23 metres in 50 years due to

the rapid melting of ice sheets 120,000 years ago. The abrupt demise of the lower-reef crest, but continuous accretion between the lower-lagoonal unit and the upper-reef crest, allows us to infer that this back-stepping occurred on an ecological timescale and was triggered by a 2 3-m jump in sea level.
Source: Rapid sea-level rise and reef back-stepping at the close of the last interglacial highstand, Blanchon, Eisenhauer et al., Nature 458:881-884

Even if we would curb all CO2 emissions today, and stabilise at the modern level (387 parts per million by volume), then our natural relationship suggests that sea level would continue to rise to about 25 metres above the present
Source: Antarctic temperature and global sea level closely coupled over the past five glacial cycles, Rohling, Grant et al., Nature Geoscience 2:500-504

We know that [when] CO2 was around 400 or 450 parts per million in the atmosphere...there was no ice sheet on West Antarctica...Thats where were almost at now.
Source: Obliquity-paced Pliocene West Antarctic ice sheet oscillations, Naish, Powell et al., Nature 458: 322

The last time carbon dioxide levels were apparently as high as they are today and were sustained at those levels global temperatures were 5 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit higher than they are today, the sea level was approximately 75 to 120 feet higher than today, there was no permanent sea ice cap in the Arctic and very little ice on Antarctica and Greenland.
Source: Aradhna Tripati, UCLA speaking ( portal/ucla/last-time-carbon-dioxide-levels-111074.aspx) on release of Coupling of CO2 and Ice Sheet Stability Over Major Climate Transitions of the Last 20 Million Years, Tripadi, Roberts et al., Science 326: 1394-1397

March 2012

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