Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

  • Letter
  • Published:

Hotspot of accelerated sea-level rise on the Atlantic coast of North America

This article has been updated


Climate warming does not force sea-level rise (SLR) at the same rate everywhere. Rather, there are spatial variations of SLR superimposed on a global average rise. These variations are forced by dynamic processes1,2,3,4, arising from circulation and variations in temperature and/or salinity, and by static equilibrium processes5, arising from mass redistributions changing gravity and the Earth’s rotation and shape. These sea-level variations form unique spatial patterns, yet there are very few observations verifying predicted patterns or fingerprints6. Here, we present evidence of recently accelerated SLR in a unique 1,000-km-long hotspot on the highly populated North American Atlantic coast north of Cape Hatteras and show that it is consistent with a modelled fingerprint of dynamic SLR. Between 1950–1979 and 1980–2009, SLR rate increases in this northeast hotspot were 3–4 times higher than the global average. Modelled dynamic plus steric SLR by 2100 at New York City ranges with Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change scenario from 36 to 51 cm (ref. 3); lower emission scenarios project 24–36 cm (ref. 7). Extrapolations from data herein range from 20 to 29 cm. SLR superimposed on storm surge, wave run-up and set-up will increase the vulnerability of coastal cities to flooding, and beaches and wetlands to deterioration.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution

Access options

Buy this article

Prices may be subject to local taxes which are calculated during checkout

Figure 1: Spatial variations of SLRD on the North American east coast.
Figure 2: SLRDs for 60-yr time series at gauge locations across North America.
Figure 3: Dependency of SLRDs on time series lengths for averages of NEH gauges.
Figure 4: Comparisons between SLRDs and climate indices.

Similar content being viewed by others

Change history

  • 26 April 2013

    The authors have updated the Supplementary Information to include the numerical results of the rate difference calculations for total window lengths of 60 years (Table S4), 50 years (Table S5) and 40 years (Table S6). These data are in spreadsheet form and provide the numerical values represented in Figs 1 and 2 in the main text and Fig. S3. These changes have been made in this file 26 April 2013.


  1. Levermann, A., Griesel, A., Hofmann, M., Montoya, M. & Rahmstorf, S. Dynamic sea level changes following changes in the thermohaline circulation. Clim. Dynam. 24, 347–354 (2005).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Landerer, F. W., Jungclaus, J. & Marotzke, J. Regional dynamic and steric sea level change in response to the IPCC-A1B scenario. J. Phys. Oceanogr. 37, 296–312 (2007).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Yin, J., Schlesinger, M. E. & Stouffer, R. J. Model projections of rapid sea-level rise on the northeast coast of the United States. Nature Geosci. 2, 262–266 (2009).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  4. Hu, A., Meehl, G., Han, W. & Yin, J. Effect of the potential melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet on the meridional overturning circulation and global climate in the future. Deep-Sea Res. II 58, 1914–1926 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Mitrovica, J. X., Tamisiea, M. E., Davis, J. L. & Milne, G. A. Recent mass balance of polar ice sheets inferred from patterns of global sea-level change. Nature 409, 1026–1029 (2001).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  6. Douglas, B. C. Concerning evidence for fingerprints of glacial melting. J. Coast. Res. 24, 218–227 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Schleussner, C. F., Frieler, K., Meinshausen, M., Yin, J. & Levermann, A. Emulating Atlantic overturning strength for low emission scenarios: Consequences for sea-level rise along the North American east coast. Earth Syst. Dynam. 2, 1–10 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Maximenko, N. et al. Mean dynamic topography of the ocean derived from satellite and drifting buoy data using three different techniques. J. Atmos. Ocean. Tech. 26, 1910–1919 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Rio, M-H. & Hernandez, F. A mean dynamic topography computed over the world ocean from altimetry, in situ measurements, and a geoid model. J. Geophys. Res. 109, C12032 (2004).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Krauss, W. The North Atlantic current. J. Geophys. Res. 91, 5061–5074 (1986).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Curry, R. G. & McCartney, M. S. Ocean gyre circulation changes associated with the North Atlantic Oscillation. J. Phys. Oceanogr. 31, 3374–3400.

  12. Hakkinen, S. & Rhines, P. B. Decline of subpolar North Atlantic circulation during the 1990s. Science 304, 555–559 (2004).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Douglas, B. C. in Sea Level Rise: History and Consequences (eds Douglas, B. C., Kearney, M. S. & Leatherman, S.P.) 37–64 (Inter. Geophys. Ser., Vol. 75, Academic, 2001).

    Book  Google Scholar 

  14. Church, J. A. & White, N. J. Sea-level rise from the late 19th to the early 21st Century. Surv. Geophys. 32, 585–602 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Merrifield, M. A., Merrifield, S. T. & Mitchum, G. T. An anomalous recent acceleration of global sea level rise. J. Clim. 22, 5772–5781 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Houston, J. R. & Dean, R. G. Sea-level acceleration based on US tide gauges and extensions of previous global-gauge analyses. J. Coastal Res. 27, 409–417 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Doran, K. J. Addressing the Problem of Land Motion at Tide Gauges, M. S. thesis 1616, College of Marine Science, Univ. South Florida (2010).

  18. Rignot, E., Velicogna, I., van den Broeke, M. R., Monaghan, A. & Lenaerts, J. Acceleration of the contribution of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets to sea level rise. Geophys. Res. Lett. 38, L05503 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Frauenfeld, O. W., Knappenberger, P. C. & Michaels, P. J. A reconstruction of annual Greenland ice melt extent, 1784–2009. J. Geophys. Res. 116, D08104 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. Abdalati, W. & Steffen, K. Greenland ice sheet melt extent: 1979–1999. J. Geophys. Res. 106, 33983–33989 (2001).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Mote, T. L. Greenland surface melt trends 1973–2007: Evidence of a large increase in 2007. Geophys. Res. Lett. 34, L22507 (2007).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Rignot, E., Koppes, M. & Velicogna, I. Rapid submarine melting of the calving faces of West Greenland glaciers. Nature Geosci. 3, 187–191 (2010).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  23. Yin, J. et al. Different magnitudes of projected subsurface ocean warming around Greenland and Antarctica. Nature Geosci. 4, 524–528 (2011).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  24. Yin, J., Griffies, S. & Stouffer, R. Spatial variability of sea level rise in twenty-first century projections. J. Clim. 23, 4585–4607 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. Box, J. E., Yang, L., Bromwich, D. H. & Bai, L-S. Greenland ice sheet surface air temperature variability: 1840–2007. J. Clim. 22, 4029–4049 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. Booth, B. B. B. et al. Aerosols implicated as a prime driver of twentieth-century North Atlantic climate variability. Nature 484, 288–232 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. Frankcombe, L. & Dijkstra, H. Geophys. Res. Lett. 36, L15604 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. Fletcher II, C. H., Van Pelt, J. E., Brush, G. S. & Sherman, J. Tidal wetland record of Holocene sea-level movements and climate history. Palaeogeogr. Palaeoclimatol. Palaeoecol. 102, 177–213 (1993).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. Boon, J. D., Brubaker, J. M. & Forrest, D. R. Chesapeake Bay Land Subsidence and Sea Level Change: An Evaluation of Past and Present Trends and Future Outlook Special Report No. 425 in Applied Marine Science and Ocean Engineering (Virginia Institute of Marine Science, 2010).

  30. Maul, G. A. & Martin, D. M. Sea level rise at Key West, Florida, 1846–1992: America’s longest instrument record? Geophys. Res. Lett. 20, 1955–1958 (1993).

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references


The USGS Coastal and Marine Geology Program provided the financial support for this work. We thank the following for providing comments on our manuscript before submission: R. A. Holman, J. Boon, C. Fletcher, N. Plant, E. R. Thieler, L. Robbins and J. List. We also thank G. Mitchum, P. Thompson and J. Haines for useful discussions about dynamic SLR and results presented in this paper. K. Morgan assisted with preparation of the final figures.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations



A.H.S. conceived the study, developed hypotheses and tests, supervised the work and wrote the main text. K.S.D. conducted the calculations, and posed and carried out sensitivity and statistical tests. P.A.H. designed statistical tests, developed/tested methods and wrote the Methods and Supplementary Information.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Asbury H. Sallenger Jr.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information (PDF 2627 kb)

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Table S4 (XLS 50 kb)

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Table S5 (XLS 51 kb)

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Table S6 (XLS 53 kb)

Rights and permissions

Reprints and permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Sallenger, A., Doran, K. & Howd, P. Hotspot of accelerated sea-level rise on the Atlantic coast of North America. Nature Clim Change 2, 884–888 (2012).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

This article is cited by


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing