Feb 12, 2018

Sea level rise is speeding up, scientists confirm

Kyla Mandel
Many areas in Florida are at risk of sea level rise. Photo: Michele Eve Sandberg/Corbis via Getty Images
Many areas in Florida are at risk of sea level rise. Photo: Michele Eve Sandberg/Corbis via Getty Images

Climate change is making our seas rise faster and faster, confirms a new study examining 25 years of data.

Published on Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the study finds that sea level rise will not increase at a steady rate. Instead, the rate will accelerate by about 0.08mm each year.

While this doesn’t sound like a lot, it could lead to almost half an inch of sea level rise per year. And if this rate of acceleration continues, by the end of the century sea levels will rise by just over 2 feet. This confirms previous projections put out by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

This expected increase is compared to just 7 cm – or 2.7 inches – of the global average sea level rise experienced since 1993. As the study notes, one of the main causes behind the accelerating sea level rise is the melting of ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica – and this is one of the biggest variables that will impact how quickly the seas will continue to rise.

Because of this, the researchers say their findings are a “conservative” estimate. If the climate starts to change even more rapidly, then the rate of sea level rise could increase even more.

As Steve Nerem, Associate Director of the Colorado Center for Astrodynamics Research at the University of Colorado Boulder and one of the study’s authors, told ThinkProgress, the study’s conclusions are based on the assumption that “the ice sheets [will] just continue going along at what they’ve been doing for the last 25 years.”

This isn’t likely to be the case, Nerem expects. “There may be abrupt changes in the ice sheets,” he said. “That’s why I think that this is a conservative estimate, because it doesn’t consider what if the ice sheets really start to go.”

Basically, he said, the study “has a major caveat that [it assumes that] sea level continues to change into the future at the same rate and acceleration of change as the last 25 years. Like I said, that’s probably not going to happen, [our findings are] probably on the low end.”


Commenting on the study, Andrea Dutton, an assistant professor and fellow at the Florida Climate Institute at the University of Florida who wasn’t involved in this research, said there’s an important statement included in the study that shouldn’t be ignored: “The probability that the acceleration is actually zero is less than 1 percent.”

In other words, it is more than 99 percent probable that sea level rise will accelerate. “That’s a very important statement,” Dutton said.