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.

Anthropogenic forcing dominates global mean sea-level rise since 1970

This article has been updated


Sea-level change is an important consequence of anthropogenic climate change, as higher sea levels increase the frequency of sea-level extremes and the impact of coastal flooding and erosion on the coastal environment, infrastructure and coastal communities1,2. Although individual attribution studies have been done for ocean thermal expansion3,4 and glacier mass loss5, two of the largest contributors to twentieth-century sea-level rise, this has not been done for the other contributors or total global mean sea-level change (GMSLC). Here, we evaluate the influence of greenhouse gases (GHGs), anthropogenic aerosols, natural radiative forcings and internal climate variability on sea-level contributions of ocean thermal expansion, glaciers, ice-sheet surface mass balance and total GMSLC. For each contribution, dedicated models are forced with results from the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project Phase 5 (CMIP5) climate model archive6. The sum of all included contributions explains 74 ± 22% (±2σ) of the observed GMSLC over the period 1900–2005. The natural radiative forcing makes essentially zero contribution over the twentieth century (2 ± 15% over the period 1900–2005), but combined with the response to past climatic variations explains 67 ± 23% of the observed rise before 1950 and only 9 ± 18% after 1970 (38 ± 12% over the period 1900–2005). In contrast, the anthropogenic forcing (primarily a balance between a positive sea-level contribution from GHGs and a partially offsetting component from anthropogenic aerosols) explains only 15 ± 55% of the observations before 1950, but increases to become the dominant contribution to sea-level rise after 1970 (69 ± 31%), reaching 72 ± 39% in 2000 (37 ± 38% over the period 1900–2005).

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

Relevant articles

Open Access articles citing this article.

Access options

Rent or buy this article

Prices vary by article type



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

Figure 1: Cumulative CMIP5 sea-level contributions and the sum for different model experiments, 1900–2005.
Figure 2: Comparison of modelled and observational average of cumulative GMSLC time series.
Figure 3: Explained fractions (%) of total observed sea-level change rates.

Change history

  • 15 April 2016

    In the version of this Letter originally published, in the paragraph above equation 1 in the Methods section, a percentage value was mistakenly included due to a typographical error. This error has been corrected in all versions of the Letter.


  1. Hinkel, J. et al. Coastal flood damage and adaptation costs under 21st century sea-level rise. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 111, 3292–3297 (2014).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  2. Church, J. A. et al. in Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis (eds Stocker, T. F. et al.) 1137–1216 (IPCC, Cambridge Univ. Press, 2013).

    Google Scholar 

  3. Marcos, M. & Amores, A. Quantifying anthropogenic and natural contributions to thermosteric sea level rise. Geophys. Res. Lett. 41, 2502–2507 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Slangen, A. B. A., Church, J. A., Zhang, X. & Monselesan, D. Detection and attribution of global mean thermosteric sea-level change. Geophys. Res. Lett. 41, 5951–5959 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Marzeion, B., Cogley, J. G., Richter, K. & Parkes, D. Attribution of global glacier mass loss to anthropogenic and natural causes. Science 345, 919–921 (2014).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  6. Taylor, K. E., Stouffer, R. J. & Meehl, G. A. An overview of CMIP5 and the experiment design. Bull. Am. Meteorol. Soc. 93, 485–498 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Gregory, J. M. et al. Twentieth-century global-mean sea level rise: is the whole greater than the sum of the parts? J. Clim. 26, 4476–4499 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Dangendorf, S. et al. Detecting anthropogenic footprints in sea level rise. Nature Commun. 6, 7849 (2015).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  9. Marzeion, B., Jarosch, A. H. & Hofer, M. Past and future sea-level change from the surface mass balance of glaciers. Cryosphere 6, 1295–1322 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Fettweis, X. et al. Estimating the Greenland ice sheet surface mass balance contribution to future sea level rise using the regional atmospheric climate model MAR. Cryosphere 7, 469–489 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Roe, G. H. & O’Neal, M. A. The response of glaciers to intrinsic climate variability: observations and models of late-Holocene variations in the Pacific Northwest. J. Glaciol. 55, 839–854 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Arendt, A. A. et al. Randolph Glacier Inventory—A Dataset of Global Glacier Outlines Version 4.0. (Global Land Ice Measurements from Space, 2014).

    Google Scholar 

  13. Marzeion, B., Leclercq, P. W., Cogley, J. G. & Jarosch, A. H. Brief communication: global glacier mass loss reconstructions during the 20th century are consistent. Cryosphere 9, 2399–2404 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Cogley, J. G. Geodetic and direct mass-balance measurements: comparison and joint analysis. Ann. Glaciol. 50, 96–100 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Church, J. A., Monselesan, D., Gregory, J. M. & Marzeion, B. Evaluating the ability of process based models to project sea-level change. Environ. Res. Lett. 8, 014051 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Delworth, T. L. & Zeng, F. Multicentennial variability of the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation and its climatic influence in a 4000 year simulation of the GFDL CM2.1 climate model. Geophys. Res. Lett. 39, L13702 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Wada, Y. et al. Past and future contribution of global groundwater depletion to sea-level rise. Geophys. Res. Lett. 39, L09402 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Chao, B. F., Wu, Y. H. & Li, Y. S. Impact of artificial reservoir water impoundment on global sea level. Science 320, 212–214 (2008).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  19. Shepherd, A. et al. A reconciled estimate of ice-sheet mass balance. Science 338, 1183–1189 (2012).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  20. Kjeldsen, K. K. et al. Spatial and temporal distribution of mass loss from the Greenland Ice Sheet since AD 1900. Nature 528, 396–400 (2015).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  21. 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 

  22. Ray, R. D. & Douglas, B. C. Experiments in reconstructing twentieth-century sea levels. Prog. Oceanogr. 91, 496–515 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. Jevrejeva, S., Moore, J. C., Grinsted, A., Matthews, A. P. & Spada, G. Trends and acceleration in global and regional sea levels since 1807. Glob. Planet. Change 113, 11–22 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. Hay, C. C., Morrow, E., Kopp, R. E. & Mitrovica, J. X. Probabilistic reanalysis of twentieth-century sea-level rise. Nature 517, 481–484 (2015).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  25. Masson-Delmotte, V. M. et al. in Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis (eds Stocker, T. F. et al.) 383–464 (IPCC, Cambridge Univ. Press, 2013).

    Google Scholar 

  26. Church, J. A. et al. Revisiting the Earth’s sea-level and energy budgets from 1961 to 2008. Geophys. Res. Lett. 38, L18601 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. Watson, C. S. et al. Unabated global mean sea-level rise over the satellite altimeter era. Nature Clim. Change 5, 565–568 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. Bilbao, R. A. F., Gregory, J. M. & Bouttes, N. Analysis of the regional pattern of sea level change due to ocean dynamics and density change for 1993–2099 in observations and CMIP5 AOGCM’s. Clim. Dynam. 45, 2647–2666 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. Sen Gupta, A., Jourdain, N. C., Brown, J. N. & Monselesan, D. Climate drift in CMIP5 Models. J. Clim. 26, 8597–8615 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  30. Lenaerts, J. T. M., van den Broeke, M. R., van de Berg, W. J., van Meijgaard, E. & Munneke, P. K. K. A new, high-resolution surface mass balance map of Antarctica (1979–2010) based on regional atmospheric climate modeling. Geophys. Res. Lett. 39, L04501 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references


We acknowledge the World Climate Research Programme’s Working Group on Coupled Modelling, which is responsible for CMIP, and we thank the climate modelling groups (listed in Supplementary Table 1) for producing and making available their model output. For CMIP, the US Department of Energy’s Program for Climate Model Diagnosis and Intercomparison provides coordinating support and leads development of software infrastructure in partnership with the Global Organization for Earth System Science Portals. A.B.A.S. is supported by a CSIRO Office of the Chief Executive Fellowship and the NWO-Netherlands Polar Program. J.A.C. is partially supported by the Australian Climate Change Science Program. B.M. and K.R. were supported by the Austrian Science Fund (FWF): P25362-N26, and by the Austrian Ministry of Science BMWF as part of the UniInfrastrukturprogramm of the Focal Point Scientific Computing at the University of Innsbruck.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations



J.A.C. and B.M. initiated the study. A.B.A.S. provided the thermal expansion data, carried out the analysis together with J.A.C. and produced the figures. B.M. and K.R. provided the glacier model data. X.F. and C.A. provided the ice sheet SMB model data. A.B.A.S. led the writing with the assistance of J.A.C., and all authors contributed to the writing of the manuscript.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Aimée B. A. Slangen.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Information (PDF 1919 kb)

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Check for updates. Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Slangen, A., Church, J., Agosta, C. et al. Anthropogenic forcing dominates global mean sea-level rise since 1970. Nature Clim Change 6, 701–705 (2016).

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