Letter abstract

Nature Geoscience 3, 546 - 550 (2010)
Published online: 11 July 2010 | doi:10.1038/ngeo901

Subject Categories: Climate science | Oceanography

Patterns of Indian Ocean sea-level change in a warming climate

Weiqing Han1, Gerald A. Meehl2, Balaji Rajagopalan3, John T. Fasullo2, Aixue Hu2, Jialin Lin4, William G. Large2, Jih-wang Wang1, Xiao-Wei Quan5, Laurie L. Trenary1, Alan Wallcraft6, Toshiaki Shinoda6 & Stephen Yeager2


Global sea level has risen during the past decades as a result of thermal expansion of the warming ocean and freshwater addition from melting continental ice1. However, sea-level rise is not globally uniform1, 2, 3, 4, 5. Regional sea levels can be affected by changes in atmospheric or oceanic circulation. As long-term observational records are scarce, regional changes in sea level in the Indian Ocean are poorly constrained. Yet estimates of future sea-level changes are essential for effective risk assessment2. Here we combine in situ and satellite observations of Indian Ocean sea level with climate-model simulations, to identify a distinct spatial pattern of sea-level rise since the 1960s. We find that sea level has decreased substantially in the south tropical Indian Ocean whereas it has increased elsewhere. This pattern is driven by changing surface winds associated with a combined invigoration of the Indian Ocean Hadley and Walker cells, patterns of atmospheric overturning circulation in the north–south and east–west direction, respectively, which is partly attributable to rising levels of atmospheric greenhouse gases. We conclude that—if ongoing anthropogenic warming dominates natural variability—the pattern we detected is likely to persist and to increase the environmental stress on some coasts and islands in the Indian Ocean.

  1. Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences, University of Colorado, UCB 311, Boulder, Colorado 80309, USA
  2. Climate and Global Dynamics Division, National Center for Atmospheric Research, Boulder, Colorado 80305, USA
  3. Department of Civil, Environmental and Architectural Engineering/CIRES, University of Colorado, Boulder, Colorado 80309, USA
  4. Department of Geography, The Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio 43210, USA
  5. CIRES, University of Colorado/ESRL NOAA, Boulder, Colorado 80309, USA
  6. Naval Research Laboratory, Stennis Space Center, Mississippi 39529, USA

Correspondence to: Weiqing Han1 e-mail: whan@enso.colorado.edu


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