Mass and volume contributions to twentieth-century global sea level rise

Abstract

The rate of twentieth-century global sea level rise and its causes are the subjects of intense controversy1,2,3,4,5,6,7. Most direct estimates from tide gauges give 1.5–2.0 mm yr-1, whereas indirect estimates based on the two processes responsible for global sea level rise, namely mass and volume change, fall far below this range. Estimates of the volume increase due to ocean warming give a rate of about 0.5 mm yr-1 (ref. 8) and the rate due to mass increase, primarily from the melting of continental ice, is thought to be even smaller. Therefore, either the tide gauge estimates are too high, as has been suggested recently6, or one (or both) of the mass and volume estimates is too low. Here we present an analysis of sea level measurements at tide gauges combined with observations of temperature and salinity in the Pacific and Atlantic oceans close to the gauges. We find that gauge-determined rates of sea level rise, which encompass both mass and volume changes, are two to three times higher than the rates due to volume change derived from temperature and salinity data. Our analysis supports earlier studies that put the twentieth-century rate in the 1.5–2.0 mm yr-1 range, but more importantly it suggests that mass increase plays a larger role than ocean warming in twentieth-century global sea level rise.

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Figure 1: Regional comparison of hydrographic and tide-gauge-measured sea level change in the Eastern Pacific.
Figure 2: Local comparison of hydrographic and tide-gauge-measured sea level change.
Figure 3: Regional comparison of hydrographic and tide-gauge-measured sea level change in the Eastern Atlantic.
Figure 4: Regional comparison of hydrographic and tide-gauge-measured sea level change in the Western Atlantic.

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Acknowledgements

We thank G. Mitchum for comments and suggestions; T. Rossby, P. Woodworth, S. Gille, R. Cheney, J. Lillibridge, W. Smith and B. Miller for insights; and C. Y. Kuo and C. K. Shum for sharing their computations based on the WOA98 interpolated data set. This work was supported in part by NOAA's Climate Services and Observations Program and NASA. The views, opinions, and findings contained in this report are those of the authors, and should not be construed as an official NOAA or US Government position, policy or decision.

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Correspondence to Laury Miller.

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Miller, L., Douglas, B. Mass and volume contributions to twentieth-century global sea level rise. Nature 428, 406–409 (2004). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature02309

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