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

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Volume 24, No. 2
Pages 130 - 143


Understanding and Projecting Sea Level Change

By John A. Church , Jonathan M. Gregory , Neil J. White, Skye M. Platten, and Jerry X. Mitrovica 
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Article Abstract

There is intense scientific and public interest in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) projections of sea level for the twenty-first century and beyond. The Fourth Assessment Report (AR4) projections, obtained by applying standard methods to the results of the World Climate Research Programme Coupled Model Experiment, includes estimates of ocean thermal expansion, the melting of glaciers and ice caps (G&ICs), increased melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet, and increased precipitation over Greenland and Antarctica, partially offsetting other contributions. The AR4 recognized the potential for a rapid dynamic ice sheet response but robust methods for quantifying it were not available. Illustrative scenarios suggested additional sea level rise on the order of 10 to 20 cm or more, giving a wide range in the global averaged projections of about 20 to 80 cm by 2100. Currently, sea level is rising at a rate near the upper end of these projections. Since publication of the AR4 in 2007, biases in historical ocean temperature observations have been identified and significantly reduced, resulting in improved estimates of ocean thermal expansion. Models that include all climate forcings are in good agreement with these improved observations and indicate the importance of stratospheric aerosol loadings from volcanic eruptions. Estimates of the volumes of G&ICs and their contributions to sea level rise have improved. Results from recent (but possibly incomplete) efforts to develop improved ice sheet models should be available for the 2013 IPCC projections. Improved understanding of sea level rise is paving the way for using observations to constrain projections. Understanding of the regional variations in sea level change as a result of changes in ocean properties, wind-stress patterns, and heat and freshwater inputs into the ocean is improving. Recently, estimates of sea level changes resulting from changes in Earth’s gravitational field and the solid Earth response to changes in surface loading have been included in regional projections. While potentially valuable, semi-empirical models have important limitations, and their projections should be treated with caution.


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