Current sea level rise has occurred at a mean rate of 1.8 mm per year for the past century, and more recently, during the satellite era of sea level measurement, at rates estimated near 2.8 ± 0.4 to 3.1 ± 0.7 mm per year (1993–2003). Current sea level rise is due significantly to global warming, which will increase sea level over the coming century and longer periods. Increasing temperatures result in sea level rise by the thermal expansion of water and through the addition of water to the oceans from the melting of mountain glaciers, ice caps and ice sheets. At the end of the 20th century, thermal expansion and melting of land ice contributed roughly equally to sea level rise, while thermal expansion is expected to contribute more than half of the rise in the upcoming century. Values for predicted sea level rise over the course of this century typically range from 90 to 880 mm, with a central value of 480 mm. Models of glacier mass balance (the difference between melting and accumulation of snow and ice on a glacier) give a theoretical maximum value for sea level rise in the current century of 2 metres (and a "more plausible" one of 0.8 metres), based on limitations on how quickly glaciers can melt.
Local mean sea level (LMSL) is defined as the height of the sea with respect to a land benchmark, averaged over a period of time (such as a month or a year) long enough that fluctuations caused by waves and tides are smoothed out. One must adjust perceived changes in LMSL to account for vertical movements of the land, which can be of the same order (mm/yr) as sea level changes. Some land movements occur because of isostatic adjustment of the mantle to the melting of ice sheets at the end of the last ice age. The weight of the ice sheet depresses the underlying land, and when the ice melts away the land slowly rebounds. Atmospheric pressure, ocean currents and local ocean temperature changes also can affect LMSL.
“Eustatic” change (as opposed to local change) results in an alteration to the global sea levels, such as changes in the volume of water in the world oceans or changes in the volume of an ocean basin.
There are many factors which can produce short-term (a few minutes to 18.6 years) changes in sea level.
|Short-term (periodic) causes||Time scale
(P = period)
|Periodic sea level changes|
|Diurnal and semidiurnal astronomical tides||12–24 h P||0.2–10+ m|
|Rotational variations (Chandler wobble)||14 month P|
|Lunar Node astronomical tides||18.613 year|
|Meteorological and oceanographic fluctuations|
|Atmospheric pressure||Hours to months||−0.7 to 1.3 m|
|Winds (storm surges)||1–5 days||Up to 5 m|
|Evaporation and precipitation (may also follow long-term pattern)||Days to weeks|
|Ocean surface topography (changes in water density and currents)||Days to weeks||Up to 1 m|
|El Niño/southern oscillation||6 mo every 5–10 yr||Up to 0.6 m|
|Seasonal water balance among oceans (Atlantic, Pacific, Indian)|
|Seasonal variations in slope of water surface|
|River runoff/floods||2 months||1 m|
|Seasonal water density changes (temperature and salinity)||6 months||0.2 m|
|Seiches (standing waves)||Minutes to hours||Up to 2 m|
|Tsunamis (generate catastrophic long-period waves)||Hours||Up to 10 m|
|Abrupt change in land level||Minutes||Up to 10 m|
Various factors affect the volume or mass of the ocean, leading to long-term changes in eustatic sea level. The two primary influences are temperature (because the density of water depends on temperature), and the mass of water locked up on land and sea as fresh water in rivers, lakes, glaciers, polar ice caps, and sea ice. Over much longer geological timescales, changes in the shape of the oceanic basins and in land/sea distribution will affect sea level.
Observational and modelling studies of mass loss from glaciers and ice caps indicate a contribution to sea-level rise of 0.2 to 0.4 mm/yr averaged over the 20th century.
Each year about 8 mm (0.3 inch) of water from the entire surface of the oceans falls into the Antarctica and Greenland ice sheets as snowfall. If no ice returned to the oceans, sea level would drop 8 mm every year. To a first approximation, the same amount of water appeared to return to the ocean in icebergs and from ice melting at the edges. Scientists previously had estimated which is greater, ice going in or coming out, called the mass balance, important because it causes changes in global sea level. High-precision gravimetry from satellites in low-noise flight has since determined Greenland is losing millions of tons per year, in accordance with loss estimates from ground measurement. Some estimates range up to 240 km3 per year in recent years.
Ice shelves float on the surface of the sea and, if they melt, to first order they do not change sea level. Likewise, the melting of the northern polar ice cap which is composed of floating pack ice would not significantly contribute to rising sea levels. Because they are fresh, however, their melting would cause a very small increase in sea levels, so small that it is generally neglected. It can however be argued that if ice shelves melt it is a precursor to the melting of ice sheets on Greenland and Antarctica.
The current rise in sea level observed from tide gauges, of about 1.8 mm/yr, is within the estimate range from the combination of factors above but active research continues in this field. The terrestrial storage term, thought to be highly uncertain, is no longer positive, and shown to be quite large.
Since 1992 a number of satellites have been recording the change in sea level; they display an acceleration in the rate of sea level change, but they have not been operating for long enough to work out whether this is a real signal, or just an artefact of short-term variation.
For generations, geologists have been trying to explain the obvious cyclicity of sedimentary deposits observed everywhere we look. The prevailing theories hold that this cyclicity primarily represents the response of depositional processes to the rise and fall of sea level. In the rock record, geologists see times when sea level was astoundingly low alternating with times when sea level was much higher than today, and these anomalies often appear worldwide. For instance, during the depths of the last ice age 18,000 years ago when hundreds of thousands of cubic miles of ice were stacked up on the continents as glaciers, sea level was 120 m (390 ft) lower, locations that today support coral reefs were left high and dry, and coastlines were miles farther basinward from the present-day coastline. It was during this time of very low sea level that there was a dry land connection between Asia and Alaska over which humans are believed to have migrated to North America (see Bering Land Bridge).
However, for the past 6,000 years (many centuries before the first known written records), the world's sea level has been gradually approaching the level we see today. During the previous interglacial about 120,000 years ago, sea level was for a short time about 6 m higher than today, as evidenced by wave-cut notches along cliffs in the Bahamas. There are also Pleistocene coral reefs left stranded about 3 metres above today's sea level along the southwestern coastline of West Caicos Island in the West Indies. These once-submerged reefs and nearby paleo-beach deposits are silent testimony that sea level spent enough time at that higher level to allow the reefs to grow (exactly where this extra sea water came from—Antarctica or Greenland—has not yet been determined). Similar evidence of geologically recent sea level positions is abundant around the world.
See IPCC TAR, figure 11.4 for a graph of sea level changes over the past 140,000 years.
Tide gauges in the United States show considerable variation because some land areas are rising and some are sinking. For example, over the past 100 years, the rate of sea level rise varies from about an increase of 0.36 inches (9.1 mm) per year along the Louisiana Coast (due to land sinking), to a drop of a few inches per decade in parts of Alaska (due to post-glacial rebound). The rate of sea level rise increased during the 1993-2003 period compared with the longer-term average (1961–2003), although it is unclear whether the faster rate reflects a short-term variation or an increase in the long-term trend.
The longest running sea-level measurements are recorded at Amsterdam, in the Netherlands—part of which (about 25%) lies beneath sea level, hence the name. Records from 1700 onwards can be found at http://www.pol.ac.uk/psmsl/longrecords/longrecords.html. Since 1850, a rise of approx 1.5 mm/year is shown here.
The London Royal Society calculates net sea level rise in Australia at 1 mm/yr—an important result for the Southern Hemisphere. The National Tidal Center also graphs 32 gauges, some since 1880, for the entire coastline
In 2007, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's Fourth Assessment Report (AR4) predicted that by 2100, global warming will lead to a sea level rise of 180 to 590 mm, depending on which of six possible world scenarios comes to pass, and barring rapid dynamical changes in ice flow. More recent research, which has observed rapid declines in ice mass balance from both Greenland and Antarctica, finds that sea-level rise by 2100 is likely to be at least twice as large as that presented by IPCC AR4, with an upper limit of about two meters.
These sea level rises could lead to potentially catastrophic difficulties for shore-based communities in the next centuries: for example, many major cities such as London and New Orleans already need storm-surge defenses, and would need more if sea level rose, though they also face issues such as sinking land. Sea level rise could also displace many shore-based populations: for example it is estimated that a sea level rise of just 200 mm could create 740,000 homeless people in Nigeria. Maldives, Tuvalu, and other low-lying countries are among the areas that are at the highest level of risk. The UN's environmental panel has warned that, at current rates, sea level would be high enough to make the Maldives uninhabitable by 2100.
Future sea level rise, like the recent rise, is not expected to be globally uniform (details below). Some regions show a sea-level rise substantially more than the global average (in many cases of more than twice the average), and others a sea level fall. However, models disagree as to the likely pattern of sea level change.
In September 2008, the Delta Commission presided by Dutch politician Cees Veerman advised in a report that The Netherlands would need a massive new building program to strengthen the country's water defenses against the anticipated effects of global warming for the next 190 years. This commission was created in September 2007, after the damage caused by Hurricane Katrina prompted reflection and preparations. Those included drawing up worst-case plans for evacuations. The plan included more than €100 billion, or $144 billion, in new spending through the year 2100 to take measures, such as broadening coastal dunes and strengthening sea and river dikes.
The commission said the country must plan for a rise in the North Sea of around 30 inches, or 80 centimeters, by 2100 and of as much as 4.25 feet, or 1.3 meters, by 2100, and 6.5-13 feet by 2200. 
The results from the IPCC Third Assessment Report (TAR) sea level chapter (convening authors John A. Church and Jonathan M. Gregory) are given below.
|IPCC change factors 1990-2100||IS92a prediction||SRES prediction|
|Thermal expansion||110 to 430 mm|
|Glaciers||10 to 230 mm
(or 50 to 110 mm)
|Greenland ice||–20 to 90 mm|
|Antarctic ice||–170 to 20 mm|
|Terrestrial storage||–83 to 30 mm|
|Ongoing contributions from ice sheets in response to past climate change||0 to 55 mm|
|Thawing of permafrost||0 to 5 mm|
|Deposition of sediment||not specified|
|Total global-average sea level rise
(IPCC result, not sum of above)
|110 to 770 mm||90 to 880 mm
(central value of 480 mm)
The sum of these components indicates a rate of eustatic sea level rise (corresponding to a change in ocean volume) from 1910 to 1990 ranging from –0.8 to 2.2 mm/yr, with a central value of 0.7 mm/yr. The upper bound is close to the observational upper bound (2.0 mm/yr), but the central value is less than the observational lower bound (1.0 mm/yr), i.e., the sum of components is biased low compared to the observational estimates. The sum of components indicates an acceleration of only 0.2 (mm/yr)/century, with a range from –1.1 to +0.7 (mm/yr)/century, consistent with observational finding of no acceleration in sea level rise during the 20th century. The estimated rate of sea-level rise from anthropogenic climate change from 1910 to 1990 (from modeling studies of thermal expansion, glaciers and ice sheets) ranges from 0.3 to 0.8 mm/yr. It is very likely that 20th century warming has contributed significantly to the observed sea-level rise, through thermal expansion of sea water and widespread loss of land ice.
A common perception is that the rate of sea-level rise should have accelerated during the latter half of the 20th century, but tide gauge data for the 20th century show no significant acceleration. Estimates obtained are based on AOGCMs for the terms directly related to anthropogenic climate change in the 20th century, i.e., thermal expansion, ice sheets, glaciers and ice caps... The total computed rise indicates an acceleration of only 0.2 (mm/yr)/century, with a range from -1.1 to +0.7 (mm/yr)/century, consistent with observational finding of no acceleration in sea-level rise during the 20th century. The sum of terms not related to recent climate change is -1.1 to +0.9 mm/yr (i.e., excluding thermal expansion, glaciers and ice caps, and changes in the ice sheets due to 20th century climate change). This range is less than the observational lower bound of sea level rise. Hence it is very likely that these terms alone are an insufficient explanation, implying that 20th century climate change has made a contribution to 20th century sea level rise. Recent figures of human, terrestrial impoundment came too late for the 3rd Report, and would revise levels upward for much of the 20th century.
It is well known that glaciers are subject to surges in their rate of movement with consequent melting when they reach lower altitudes and/or the sea. The contributors to Annals of Glaciology , Volume 36  (2003) discussed this phenomenon extensively and it appears that slow advance and rapid retreat have persisted throughout the mid to late Holocene in nearly all of Alaska's glaciers. Historical reports of surge occurrences in Iceland's glaciers go back several centuries. Thus rapid retreat can have several other causes than CO2 increase in the atmosphere.
The results from Dyurgerov show a sharp increase in the contribution of mountain and subpolar glaciers to sea level rise since 1996 (0.5 mm/yr) to 1998 (2 mm/yr) with an average of approx. 0.35 mm/yr since 1960.
Of interest also is Arendt et al., who estimate the contribution of Alaskan glaciers of 0.14±0.04 mm/yr between the mid 1950s to the mid 1990s increasing to 0.27 mm/yr in the middle and late 1990s.
Krabill et al. estimate a net contribution from Greenland to be at least 0.13 mm/yr in the 1990s. Joughin et al. have measured a doubling of the speed of Jakobshavn Isbræ between 1997 and 2003. This is Greenland's largest outlet glacier; it drains 6.5% of the ice sheet, and is thought to be responsible for increasing the rate of sea level rise by about 0.06 millimetres per year, or roughly 4% of the 20th century rate of sea level increase. In 2004, Rignot et al. estimated a contribution of 0.04±0.01 mm/yr to sea level rise from southeast Greenland.
Rignot and Kanagaratnam produced a comprehensive study and map of the outlet glaciers and basins of Greenland. They found widespread glacial acceleration below 66 N in 1996 which spread to 70 N by 2005; and that the ice sheet loss rate in that decade increased from 90 to 200 cubic km/yr; this corresponds to an extra 0.25 to 0.55 mm/yr of sea level rise.
In July 2005 it was reported that the Kangerdlugssuaq glacier, on Greenland's east coast, was moving towards the sea three times faster than a decade earlier. Kangerdlugssuaq is around 1,000 m thick, 7.2 km (4.5 miles) wide, and drains about 4% of the ice from the Greenland ice sheet. Measurements of Kangerdlugssuaq in 1988 and 1996 showed it moving at between 5 and 6 km/yr (3.1 to 3.7 miles/yr) (in 2005 it was moving at 14 km/yr [8.7 miles/yr]).
According to the 2004 Arctic Climate Impact Assessment, climate models project that local warming in Greenland will exceed 3° Celsius during this century. Also, ice sheet models project that such a warming would initiate the long-term melting of the ice sheet, leading to a complete melting of the Greenland ice sheet over several millennia, resulting in a global sea level rise of about seven metres.
On the Antarctic continent itself, the large volume of ice present stores around 70 % of the world's fresh water. This ice sheet is constantly gaining ice from snowfall and losing ice through outflow to the sea. West Antarctica is currently experiencing a net outflow of glacial ice, which will increase global sea level over time. A review of the scientific studies looking at data from 1992 to 2006 suggested a net loss of around 50 Gigatonnes of ice per year was a reasonable estimate (around 0.14 mm of sea level rise), although significant acceleration of outflow glaciers in the Amundsen Sea Embayment could have more than doubled this figure for the year 2006.
East Antarctica is a cold region with a ground base above sea level and occupies most of the continent. This area is dominated by small accumulations of snowfall which becomes ice and thus eventually seaward glacial flows. The mass balance of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet as a whole is thought to be slightly positive (lowering sea level) or near to balance. However, increased ice outflow has been suggested in some regions.
The snowline altitude is the altitude of the lowest elevation interval in which minimum annual snow cover exceeds 50%. This ranges from about 5,500 metres above sea-level at the equator down to sea-level at about 65° N&S latitude, depending on regional temperature amelioration effects. Permafrost then appears at sea-level and extends deeper below sea-level pole-wards. The depth of permafrost and the height of the ice-fields in both Greenland and Antarctica means that they are largely invulnerable to rapid melting. Greenland Summit is at 3,200 metres, where the average annual temperature is minus 32 °C. So even a projected 4 °C rise in temperature leaves it well below the melting point of ice. Frozen Ground 28, December 2004, has a very significant map of permafrost affected areas in the Arctic. The continuous permafrost zone includes all of Greenland, the North of Labrador, NW Territories, Alaska north of Fairbanks, and most of NE Siberia north of Mongolia and Kamchatka. Continental ice above permafrost is very unlikely to melt quickly. As most of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets lie above the snowline and/or base of the permafrost zone, they cannot melt in a timeframe much less than several millennia; therefore they are unlikely to contribute significantly to sea-level rise in the coming century.
The sea level will rise above its current level if more polar ice melts. However, compared to the heights of the ice ages, today there are very few continental ice sheets remaining to be melted. It is estimated that Antarctica, if fully melted, would contribute more than 60 metres of sea level rise, and Greenland would contribute more than 7 metres. Small glaciers and ice caps on the margins of Greenland and the Antarctic Peninsula might contribute about 0.5 metres. While the latter figure is much smaller than for Antarctica or Greenland it could occur relatively quickly (within the coming century) whereas melting of Greenland would be slow (perhaps 1,500 years to fully deglaciate at the fastest likely rate) and Antarctica even slower. However, this calculation does not account for the possibility that as meltwater flows under and lubricates the larger ice sheets, they could begin to move much more rapidly towards the sea.
In 2002, Rignot and Thomas found that the West Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets were losing mass, while the East Antarctic ice sheet was probably in balance (although they could not determine the sign of the mass balance for The East Antarctic ice sheet). Kwok and Comiso (J. Climate, v15, 487-501, 2002) also discovered that temperature and pressure anomalies around West Antarctica and on the other side of the Antarctic Peninsula correlate with recent Southern Oscillation events.
In 2004 Rignot et al. estimated a contribution of 0.04±0.01 mm/yr to sea level rise from South East Greenland. In the same year, Thomas et al. found evidence of an accelerated contribution to sea level rise from West Antarctica. The data showed that the Amundsen Sea sector of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet was discharging 250 cubic kilometres of ice every year, which was 60% more than precipitation accumulation in the catchment areas. This alone was sufficient to raise sea level at 0.24 mm/yr. Further, thinning rates for the glaciers studied in 2002-2003 had increased over the values measured in the early 1990s. The bedrock underlying the glaciers was found to be hundreds of metres deeper than previously known, indicating exit routes for ice from further inland in the Byrd Subpolar Basin. Thus the West Antarctic ice sheet may not be as stable as has been supposed.
In 2005 it was reported that during 1992-2003, East Antarctica thickened at an average rate of about 18 mm/yr while West Antarctica showed an overall thinning of 9 mm/yr. associated with increased precipitation. A gain of this magnitude is enough to slow sea-level rise by 0.12±0.02 mm/yr.
Based on the projected increases stated above, the IPCC TAR WG II report notes that current and future climate change would be expected to have a number of impacts, particularly on coastal systems. Such impacts may include increased coastal erosion, higher storm-surge flooding, inhibition of primary production processes, more extensive coastal inundation, changes in surface water quality and groundwater characteristics, increased loss of property and coastal habitats, increased flood risk and potential loss of life, loss of nonmonetary cultural resources and values, impacts on agriculture and aquaculture through decline in soil and water quality, and loss of tourism, recreation, and transportation functions.
There is an implication that many of these impacts will be detrimental—especially for the three-quarters of the world's poor who depend on agriculture systems. The report does, however, note that owing to the great diversity of coastal environments; regional and local differences in projected relative sea level and climate changes; and differences in the resilience and adaptive capacity of ecosystems, sectors, and countries, the impacts will be highly variable in time and space.
Statistical data on the human impact of sea level rise is scarce. A study in the April, 2007 issue of Environment and Urbanization reports that 634 million people live in coastal areas within 30 feet (9.1 m) of sea level. The study also reported that about two thirds of the world's cities with over five million people are located in these low-lying coastal areas. The IPCC report of 2007 estimated that accelerated melting of the Himalayan ice caps and the resulting rise in sea levels would likely increase the severity of flooding in the short-term during the rainy season and greatly magnify the impact of tidal storm surges during the cyclone season. A sea-level rise of just 400 mm in the Bay of Bengal would put 11 percent of the Bangladesh's coastal land underwater, creating 7 to 10 million climate refugees.
IPCC assessments suggest that deltas and small island states are particularly vulnerable to sea level rise caused by both thermal expansion and ocean volume. Relative sea level rise (mostly caused by subsidence) is currently causing substantial loss of lands in some deltas. Sea level changes have not yet been conclusively proven to have directly resulted in environmental, humanitarian, or economic losses to small island states, but the IPCC and other bodies have found this a serious risk scenario in coming decades.
Many media reports have focused the island nations of the Pacific, notably the Polynesian islands of Tuvalu, which based on more severe flooding events in recent years, was thought to be "sinking" due to sea level rise. A scientific review in 2000 reported that based on University of Hawaii gauge data, Tuvalu had experienced a negligible increase in sea-level of 0.07 mm a year over the past two decades, and that ENSO had been a larger factor in Tuvalu's higher tides in recent years. A subsequent study by John Hunter from the University of Tasmania, however, adjusted for ENSO effects and the movement of the gauge (which was thought to be sinking). Hunter concluded that Tuvalu had been experiencing sea-level rise of about 1.2 mm per year. The recent more frequent flooding in Tuvalu may also be due to an erosional loss of land during and following the actions of 1997 cyclones Gavin, Hina, and Keli.
Reuters has reported other Pacific islands are facing a severe risk including Tegua island in Vanuatu. Claims that Vanuatu data shows no net sea level rise, are not substantiated by tide gauge data. Vanuatu tide gauge data show a net rise of ~50 mm from 1994-2004. Linear regression of this short time series suggests a rate of rise of ~7 mm/y, though there is considerable variability and the exact threat to the islands is difficult to assess using such a short time series.
Numerous options have been proposed that would assist island nations to adapt to rising sea level.
Sea level rise estimates from satellite altimetry are 3.1 ± 0.4 mm/yr for 1993-2003 (Leuliette et al. (2004)). This exceeds those from tide gauges. It is unclear whether this represents an increase over the last decades; variability; true differences between satellites and tide gauges; or problems with satellite calibration. Knowing the current altitude of a satellite which can measure sea level to a precision of about 20 millimetres (e.g. the Topex/Poseidon system) is primarily complicated by orbital decay and the difference between the assumed orbit and the earth geoid . This problem is partially corrected by regular re-calibration of satellite altimeters from land stations whose height from MSL is known by surveying. Over water, the height is calibrated from tide gauge data which is needed to correct for tides and atmospheric effects on sea level.