Oceanography The Official Magazine of
The Oceanography Society
Volume 24 Issue 02

View Issue TOC
Volume 24, No. 2
Pages 24 - 39


The Moving Boundaries of Sea Level Change: Understanding the Origins of Geographic Variability

By Mark E. Tamisiea  and Jerry X. Mitrovica 
Jump to
Article Abstract Citation References Copyright & Usage
Article Abstract

As ice sheets gain or lose mass, and as water moves between the continents and the ocean, the solid Earth deforms and the gravitational field of the planet is perturbed. Both of these effects lead to regional patterns in sea level change that depart dramatically from the global average. Understanding these patterns will lead to better constraints on the various contributors to the observed sea level change and, ultimately, to more robust projections of future changes. In both of these applications, a key step is to apply a correction to sea level observations, based on data from tide gauges, satellite altimetry, or gravity, to remove the contaminating signal that is due to the ongoing Earth response to the last ice age. Failure to accurately account for this so-called glacial isostatic adjustment has the potential to significantly bias our understanding of the magnitude and sources of present-day global sea level rise. This paper summarizes the physics of several important sources of regional sea level change. Moreover, we discuss several promising strategies that take advantage of this regional variation to more fully use sea level data sets to monitor the impact of climate change on the Earth system.


Tamisiea, M.E., and J.X. Mitrovica. 2011. The moving boundaries of sea level change: Understanding the origins of geographic variability. Oceanography 24(2):24–39, https://doi.org/10.5670/oceanog.2011.25.


Altamimi, Z., X. Collilieux, and L. Métivier. 2011. ITRF2008: An improved solution of the international terrestrial reference frame. Journal of Geodesy. [CrossRef]

Bamber, J., and R. Riva. 2010. The sea level fingerprint of recent ice mass fluxes. The Cryosphere 4(4):621–627. [CrossRef]

Bamber, J.L., R.E.M. Riva, B.L.A. Vermeersen, and A.M. LeBrocq. 2009. Reassessment of the potential sea-level rise from a collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. Science 324:901–903. [CrossRef]

Beckley, B.D., F.G. Lemoine, S.B. Luthcke, R.D. Ray, and N.P. Zelensky. 2007. A reassessment of global and regional mean sea level trends from TOPEX and Jason-1 altimetry based on revised reference frame and orbits. Geophysical Research Letters 34, L14608. [CrossRef]

Cazenave, A., K. Dominh, S. Guinehut, E. Berthier, W. Llovel, G. Ramillien, M. Ablain, and G. Larnicol. 2009. Sea level budget over 2003–2008: A reevaluation from GRACE space gravimetry, satellite altimetry and Argo. Global and Planetary Change 65:83–88. [CrossRef]

Chambers, D.P., J. Wahr, M.E. Tamisiea, and R.S. Nerem. 2010. Ocean mass from GRACE and glacial isostatic adjustment. Journal of Geophysical Research 115, B11415. [CrossRef]

Chao, B.F., Y.H. Wu, and Y.S. Li. 2008. Impact of artificial reservoir water impoundment on global sea level. Science 320:212–214. [CrossRef]

Clark, J.A., and C.S. Lingle. 1977. Future sea level changes due to West Antarctic ice-sheet fluctuations. Nature 269:206–209. [CrossRef]

Clark, J.A., and J.A. Primus. 1987. Sea-level changes resulting from future retreat of ice sheets: An effect of CO2 warming of the climate. Pp. 256–370 in Sea-Level Change. M.J. Tooley and I. Shennan, eds, Institute of British Geographers, London, United Kingdom.

Dietrich, R., E. Ivins, G. Casassa, H. Lange, J. Wendt, and M. Fritsche. 2010. Rapid crustal uplift in Patagonia due to enhanced ice loss. Earth and Planetary Science Letters 289:22–29. [CrossRef]

Douglas, B.C. 1991. Global sea level rise. Journal of Geophysical Research 96:6,981–6,992. [CrossRef]

Douglas, B.C. 2008. Concerning evidence for fingerprints of glacial melting. Journal of Coastal Research 24:218–227. [CrossRef]

Dziewonski, A.M., and D.L. Anderson. 1981. Preliminary reference earth model. Physics of the Earth and Planetary Interiors 25:297–356. [CrossRef]

Ekman, M. 2009. The Changing Level of the Baltic Sea During 300 Years: A Clue to Understanding the Earth. Summer Institute for Historical Geophysics, Åland Islands, 155 pp.

Engelhart, S.E., B.P. Horton, and A.C. Kemp. 2011. Holocene sea level changes along the United States’ Atlantic Coast. Oceanography 24(2):70–79. [CrossRef]

Farrell, W.E., and J.A. Clark. 1976. On postglacial sea level. Geophysical Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society 46:647–667. [CrossRef]

Fiedler, J.W., and C.P. Conrad. 2010. Spatial variability of sea level rise due to water impoundment behind dams. Geophysical Research Letters 37, L12603. [CrossRef]

Ivins, E.R., M.M. Watkins, D.N. Yuan, R. Dietrich, G. Casassa, and A. Rülke. 2011. On-land ice loss and glacial isostatic adjustment at the Drake Passage: 2003–2009. Journal of Geophysical Research 116, B02403. [CrossRef]

Kendall, R.A., J.X. Mitrovica, and G.A. Milne. 2005. On post-glacial sea level. Part II. Numerical formulation and comparative results on spherically symmetric models. Geophysical Journal International 161:679–706. [CrossRef]

Kendall, R.A., K. Latychev, J.X. Mitrovica, J.E. Davis, and M.E. Tamisiea. 2006. Decontaminating tide gauge records for the influence of glacial isostatic adjustment: The potential impact of 3-D Earth structure. Geophysical Research Letters 33, L24318. [CrossRef]

Kopp, R.E., J.X. Mitrovica, S.M. Griffies, J. Yin, C.C. Hay, and R.J. Stouffer. 2010. The impact of Greenland melt on local sea levels: A partially coupled analysis of dynamic and static equilibrium effects in idealized water-hosing experiments. Climatic Change 103:619–625. [CrossRef]

Lambeck, K., A. Purcell, J. Zhao, and N.O. Svensson. 2010. The Scandinavian ice sheet: From MIS 4 to the end of the last glacial maximum. Boreas 39:410–435. [CrossRef]

Larsen, C.F., R.J. Motyka, J.T. Freymueller, K.A. Echelmeyer, and E.R. Ivins. 2005. Rapid viscoelastic uplift in southeast Alaska caused by post-Little Ice Age glacial retreat. Earth and Planetary Science Letters 237:548–560. [CrossRef]

Latychev, K., J.X. Mitrovica, J. Tromp, M.E. Tamisiea, D. Komatistsch, and C.C. Christara. 2005. Glacial isostatic adjustment on 3-D Earth models: A finite-volume formulation. Geophysical Journal International 159:421–444. [CrossRef]

Leuliette, E.W., and L. Miller. 2009. Closing the sea level rise budget with altimetry, Argo, and GRACE. Geophysical Research Letters 36, L04608. [CrossRef]

Love, A.E.H. 1911. Some Problems of Geodynamics: Being an Essay to Which the Adams Prize in the University of Cambridge was Adjudged in 1911. University Press, Cambridge, UK, 180 pp.

Marcos, M., and M.N. Tsimplis. 2007. Forcing of coastal sea level rise patterns in the North Atlantic and the Mediterranean Sea. Geophysical Research Letters 34, L18604. [CrossRef]

Martinec, Z. 2000. Spectral-finite element approach to three-dimensional viscoelastic relaxation in a spherical Earth. Geophysical Journal International 142:117–141. [CrossRef]

Milne, G.A., and J.X. Mitrovica. 1998. Plostglacial sea-level change on a rotating Earth. Geophysical Journal International 133:1–19. [CrossRef]

Milne, G.A., J.X. Mitrovica, and J.L. Davis. 1999. Near-field hydro-isostasy: The implementation of a revised sea-level equation. Geophysical Journal International 139:464–482. [CrossRef]

Mitrovica, J.X. 1996. Haskell [1935] revisited. Journal of Geophysical Research 101:555–569. [CrossRef]

Mitrovica, J.X., and J.L. Davis. 1995. Present-day post-glacial sea level change far from the late Pleistocene ice sheets: Implications for recent analyses of tide gauge records. Geophysical Research Letters 22:2,529–2,532. [CrossRef]

Mitrovica, J.X., and G.A. Milne. 2002. On the origin of late Holocene sea-level highstands within equatorial ocean basins. Quaternary Science Reviews 21:2,179–2,190. [CrossRef]

Mitrovica, J.X., and G.A. Milne. 2003. On post-glacial sea level: I. General theory. Geophysical Journal International 154:253–267. [CrossRef]

Mitrovica, J.X., and W.R. Peltier. 1991. On postglacial geoid subsidence over the equatorial oceans. Journal of Geophysical Research 96:20,053–20,071. [CrossRef]

Mitrovica, J.X., N. Gomez, and P.U. Clark. 2009. The sea-level fingerprint of West Antarctic collapse. Science 323:753. [CrossRef]

Mitrovica, J.X., M.E. Tamisiea, J.L. Davis, and G.A. Milne. 2001. Recent mass balance of polar ice sheets inferred from patterns of global sea-level change. Nature 409:1,026–1,029. [CrossRef]

Nakada, M., and K. Lambeck. 1989. Late Pleistocene and Holocene sea-level change in the Australian region and mantle rheology. Geophysical Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society 96:497–517.  [CrossRef]

Nakiboglu, S.M. 1982. Hydrostatic theory of the Earth and its mechanical implications. Physics of the Earth and Planetary Interiors 28:302–311. [CrossRef]

Peltier, W.R. 1998. Postglacial variations in the level of the sea: Implications for climate dynamics and solid-earth geophysics. Reviews of Geophysics 36:603–689. [CrossRef]

Peltier, W.R. 2001. Global glacial isostatic adjustment and modern instrumental records of relative sea level history. Pp. 65–95 in Sea Level Rise: History and Consequences. B.C. Douglas, M.S. Kearney, and S.P. Leatherman, eds, International Geophysics Series, vol. 75. Academic Press.

Peltier, W.R. 2004. Global glacial isostasy and the surface of the Ice age Earth: The ICE-5G(VM2) model and GRACE. Annual Review of Earth and Planetary Sciences 32:111–149. [CrossRef]

Peltier, W.R. 2009. Closure of the budget of global sea level rise over the GRACE era: The importance and magnitudes of the required corrections for global glacial isostatic adjustment. Quaternary Science Reviews 28:1,658–1,674. [CrossRef]

Rignot, E., J.L. Bamber, M.R. Van Den Broeke, C. Davis, Y. Li, W.J. Van De Berg, and E. Van Meijgaard. 2008a. Recent Antarctic ice mass loss from radar interferometry and regional climate modelling. Nature Geosciences 1:106–110. [CrossRef]

Rignot, E., J.E. Box, E. Burgess, and E. Hanna. 2008b. Mass balance of the Greenland ice sheet from 1958 to 2007. Geophysical Research Letters 35, L20502. [CrossRef]

Riva, R.E.M., J.L. Bamber, D.A. Lavallée, and B. Wouters. 2010. Sea-level fingerprint of continental water and ice mass change from GRACE. Geophysical Research Letters 37, L19605. [CrossRef]

Slangen, A.B.A., C.A. Katsman, R.S.W. van de Wal, L.L.A. Vermeersen, and R.E.M. Riva. 2011. Towards regional projections of twenty-first century sea-level change based on IPCC SRES scenarios. Climate Dynamics. [CrossRef]

Tamisiea, M.E., E.M. Hill, R.M. Ponte, J.L. Davis, I. Velicogna, and N.T. Vinogradova. 2010. Impact of self-attraction and loading on the annual cycle in sea level. Journal of Geophysical Research 115, C07004. [CrossRef]

Vinogradova, N.T., R.M. Ponte, and D. Stammer. 2007. Relation between sea level and bottom pressure and the vertical dependence of oceanic variability. Geophysical Research Letters 34, L03608. [CrossRef]

Vinogradova, N.T., R.M. Ponte, M.E. Tamisiea, J.L. Davis, and E.M. Hill. 2010. Effects of self-attraction and loading on annual variations of ocean bottom pressure. Journal of Geophysical Research 115, C06025. [CrossRef]

Wahr, J., M. Molenaar, and F. Bryan. 1998. Time variability of the Earth’s gravity field: Hydrological and oceanic effects and their possible detection using GRACE. Journal of Geophysical Research 103:30,205–30,229. [CrossRef]

Wake, L., G. Milne, and E. Leuliette. 2006. 20th century sea-level change along the eastern US: Unravelling the contributions from steric changes, Greenland ice sheet mass balance and Late Pleistocene glacial loading. Earth and Planetary Science Letters 250:572–580. [CrossRef]

Willis, J., D.P. Chambers, and R.S. Nerem. 2008. Assessing the globally averaged sea level budget on seasonal to interannual timescales. Journal of Geophysical Research 113, C06015. [CrossRef]

Woodworth, P.L., and R. Player. 2003. The permanent service for mean sea level: An update to the 21st century. Journal of Coastal Research 19:287–295.

Woodworth, P.L., W.R. Gehrels, and R.S. Nerem. 2011. Nineteenth and twentieth century changes in sea level. Oceanography 24(2):80–93. [CrossRef]

Wöppelmann, G., C. Letetrel, A. Santamaria, M.N. Bouin, X. Collilieux, Z. Altamimi, S.D.P. Williams, and B.M. Miguez. 2009. Rates of sea-level change over the past century in a geocentric reference frame. Geophysical Research Letters 36, L12607. [CrossRef]

Wouters, B., R.E.M. Riva, D.A. Lavallée, and J.L. Bamber. 2011. Seasonal variations in sea level induced by continental water mass: First results from GRACE. Geophysical Research Letters 38, L03303. [CrossRef]

Wu, P. 2004. Using commercial finite element packages for the study of earth deformations, sea levels and the state of stress. Geophysical Journal International 158:401–408. [CrossRef]

Wu, P., and W.R. Peltier. 1983. Glacial isostatic adjustment and the free air gravity anomaly as a constraint on deep mantle viscosity. Geophysical Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society 74:377–449.  [CrossRef]

Zhong, S.J., A. Paulson, and J. Wahr. 2003. Three-dimensional finite element modeling of Earth’s iscoelastic deformation: Effects of lateral variations in lithospheric thickness. Geophysical Journal International 155:679–695. [CrossRef]

Copyright & Usage

This is an open access article made available under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/), which permits use, sharing, adaptation, distribution, and reproduction in any medium or format as long as users cite the materials appropriately, provide a link to the Creative Commons license, and indicate the changes that were made to the original content. Images, animations, videos, or other third-party material used in articles are included in the Creative Commons license unless indicated otherwise in a credit line to the material. If the material is not included in the article’s Creative Commons license, users will need to obtain permission directly from the license holder to reproduce the material.