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.

Under-estimated wave contribution to coastal sea-level rise

An Author Correction to this article was published on 23 July 2018

This article has been updated


Coastal communities are threatened by sea-level changes operating at various spatial scales; global to regional variations are associated with glacier and ice sheet loss and ocean thermal expansion, while smaller coastal-scale variations are also related to atmospheric surges, tides and waves. Here, using 23 years (1993–2015) of global coastal sea-level observations, we examine the contribution of these latter processes to long-term sea-level rise, which, to date, have been relatively less explored. It is found that wave contributions can strongly dampen or enhance the effects of thermal expansion and land ice loss on coastal water-level changes at interannual-to-multidecadal timescales. Along the US West Coast, for example, negative wave-induced trends dominate, leading to negative net water-level trends. Accurate estimates of past, present and future coastal sea-level rise therefore need to consider low-frequency contributions of wave set-up and swash.

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

Get just this article for as long as you need it


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

Fig. 1: Schematic of processes contributing to total water-level changes at the coast.
Fig. 2: Contributions to extreme events.
Fig. 3: Contribution to interannual-to-multidecadal total water-level variations.
Fig. 4: Contribution to total water-level trends.

Change history

  • 23 July 2018

    In the version of this Article originally published, there were a number of errors in the main text, the Supplementary Information, the Methods and Figures that needed to be corrected as a result of a coding error when quantifying the wave contributions to sea level rise. In the ‘Interannual-to-multidecadal changes’ section of the main text, from the sentence beginning “Overall, the median...”, ‘55%’ has been corrected to ‘58%’; in the following sentence, “This large contribution is globally evenly distributed...” has been adjusted to “This large contribution is distributed...”, and ‘28%’ and ‘27%’ have been corrected to ‘38%’ and ‘20%’, respectively; and in the sentence following that, ‘39%’ and ‘16%’ have been corrected to ‘36%’ and ‘17%’, respectively. In the ‘Sensitivity to the wave set-up and swash formulation.’ section of the Methods, in equation (5), ’0.756’, ‘0.165’ and ‘0.0368’ have been corrected to ‘0.757’, ‘0.167’ and ‘0.044 H02’, respectively; in the sentence beginning ‘Wave contribution to...’, ‘55%’ has been corrected to ‘28%’; the following sentence has been corrected to read: “On average, swell contribution to the total wave contribution are of 64% for all three formulations.”; and in the final sentence, ‘(i) (49% and 51%...)’ has been corrected to ‘(ii) (41% and 59%...)’, ‘(iii) (36% and 64%...)’ has been corrected to ‘(i) (34% and 66%...)’, and ‘(ii) (19% and 81%...)’ has been corrected to ‘(iii) (25% and 75%...)’. In the ‘Significance of the trends.’ section of the Methods, in the final sentence '(Galápagos Islands, Callao, Clipperton Island and Tumaco)...' has been corrected to read '(Galápagos Islands and Tumaco)…'. In the online versions of the article, Figs 2–4 and Supplementary Figs 2–9 have been replaced to correct erroneous results that were the consequence of the coding error. All these figures are available as Supplementary Information to this correction notice.


  1. Wong, P. P. et al. In Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability (eds Field, C. B. et al.) 361–409 (IPCC, Cambridge Univ. Press, 2014).

  2. Hallegatte, S., Green, C., Nicholls, R. J. & Corfee-Morlot, J. Future flood losses in major coastal cities. Nat. Clim. Change 3, 802–806 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Nicholls, R. J. & Cazenave, A. Sea-level rise and its impact on coastal zones. Science 328, 1517–1520 (2010).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  4. Brown, S. et al. In Coastal Hazards 117–149 (Springer, Dordrecht, 2013).

  5. McGranahan, G., Balk, D. & Anderson, B. The rising tide: assessing the risks of climate change and human settlements in low elevation coastal zones. Environ. Urban. 19, 17–37 (2007).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Hugo, G. Future demographic change and its interactions with migration and climate change. Glob. Environ. Change 21, S21–S33 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. IPCC Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis (eds Stocker, T. F. et al.) Ch. 13 (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2013).

  8. Slangen, A. B. et al. Evaluating model simulations of twentieth-century sea level rise. Part I: Global mean sea level change. J. Clim. 30, 8539–8563 (2017).

  9. Forget, G. & Ponte, R. M. The partition of regional sea level variability. Progress. Oceanogr. 137, 173–195 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Meyssignac, B. et al. Evaluating model simulations of twentieth-century sea-level rise. Part II: Regional sea-level changes. J. Clim. 30, 8565–8593 (2017).

  11. Tamisiea, M. E. Ongoing glacial isostatic contributions to observations of sea level change. Geophys. J. Int. 186, 1036–1044 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Sallenger, A. H. Storm impact scale for barrier islands. J. Coast. Res. 16, 890–895 (2000).

    Google Scholar 

  13. Muis, S., Verlaan, M., Winsemius, H. C., Aerts, J. C. & Ward, P. J. A global reanalysis of storm surges and extreme sea levels. Nat. Commun. 7, 11969 (2016).

  14. Woodworth, P. L. et al. Towards a global higher-frequency sea level dataset. Geosci. Data J. 3, 50–59 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Woodworth, P., Gregory, J. & Nicholls, R. in The Sea (eds Robinson, A. R. & Brink, K.) Vol. 13 (Harvard Univ. Press: Harvard, 2004).

  16. Vitousek, S. et al. Doubling of coastal flooding frequency within decades due to sea-level rise. Sci. Rep. 7, 1399 (2017).

  17. Serafin, K. A., Ruggiero, P. & Stockdon, H. F. The relative contribution of waves, tides, and non-tidal residuals to extreme total water levels on US West Coast sandy beaches. Geophys. Res. Lett. 44, 1839–1847 (2017).

    Google Scholar 

  18. Rueda, A. et al. Global classification of coastal flooding climates. Sci. Rep. 7, 5038 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Ruggiero, P. Is the intensifying wave climate of the US Pacific Northwest increasing flooding and erosion risk faster than sea level rise? J. Waterw. Port. Coast. Ocean Eng. 139, 88–97 (2013).

  20. Nicholls, R. J. et al. Sea-level scenarios for evaluating coastal impacts. WIREs Clim. Change 5, 129–150 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Semedo, A., Suselj, K., Rutgersson, A. & Sterl, A. A global view on the wind sea and swell climate and variability from ERA-40. J. Clim. 24, 1461–1479 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Young, I. R., Zieger, S. & Babanin, A. V. Global trends in wind speed and wave height. Science 332, 451–455 (2011).

  23. Hemer, M. A., Fan, Y., Mori, N., Semedo, A. & Wang, X. L. Projected future changes in wind-wave climate in a multi-model ensemble. Nat. Clim. Change 3, 471–476 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. Wang, X. L., Feng, Y. & Swail, V. R. Changes in global ocean wave heights as projected using multimodel CMIP5 simulations. Geophys. Res. Lett. 41, 1026–1034 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. Cazenave, A. et al. The rate of sea-level rise. Nat. Clim. Change 4, 358–361 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. Ablain, M. et al. Improved sea level record over the satellite altimetry era (1993–2010) from the Climate Change Initiative project. Ocean Sci. 11, 67–82 (2015).

  27. Cipollini, P., Calafat, F. M., Jevrejeva, S., Melet, A. & Prandi, P. Monitoring sea level in the coastal zone with satellite altimetry and tide gauges. Surv. Geophys. 38, 33–57 (2017).

  28. Birol, F. et al. Coastal applications from nadir altimetry: example of the X-TRACK regional products. Adv. Space Res. 59, 936–953 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. Thompson, R. O. & Hamon, B. V. Wave setup of harbor water levels. J. Geophys. Res. 85, 1151–1152 (1980).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  30. Hoeke, R. K. et al. Widespread inundation of Pacific islands triggered by distant-source wind-waves. Glob. Planet. Change 108, 128–138 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  31. Hoeke, R. K., McInnes, K. L. & O’Grady, J. G. Wind and wave setup contributions to extreme sea levels at a tropical high island: a stochastic cyclone simulation study for Apia, Samoa. J. Mar. Sci. Eng. 3, 1117–1135 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  32. Melet, A., Almar, R. & Meyssignac, B. What dominates sea level at the coast: a case study for the Gulf of Guinea. Ocean Dyn. 66, 623–636 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  33. Carrère, L., Lyard, F., Cancet, M., Guillot, A. & Roblou, L. FES2012: a new global tidal model taking advantage of nearly 20 years of altimetry. In Proc. 20 Years Prog. Radar Altimetry Symp. (ed. Ouwehand, L.) 710–781 (European Space Agency, Noordwijk, 2013).

  34. Carrère, L. & Lyard, F. Modeling the barotropic response of the global ocean to atmospheric wind and pressure forcing‐comparisons with observations. Geophys. Res. Lett. 30, 1275 (2003).

  35. Dee, D. P. et al. The ERA-Interim reanalysis: configuration and performance of the data assimilation system. Q. J. R. Meteorol. Soc. 137, 553–597 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  36. Stockdon, H. F., Holman, R. A., Howd, P. A. & Sallenger, A. H. Empirical parameterization of setup, swash, and runup. Coast. Eng. 53, 573–588 (2006).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  37. Caldwell, P. C., Merrifield, M. A. & Thompson, P. R. Sea Level Measured by Tide Gauges from Global Oceans—the Joint Archive for Sea Level Holdings (NCEI Accession 0019568) Version 5.5 (NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information, 2015).

  38. Merrifield, M. A., Genz, A. S., Kontoes, C. P. & Marra, J. J. Annual maximum water levels from tide gauges: contributing factors and geographic patterns. J. Geophys. Res. 118, 2535–2546 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  39. Roberts, C. et al. On the drivers and predictability of seasonal-to-interannual variations in regional sea level. J. Clim. 29, 7565–7585 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  40. 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 AOGCMs. Clim. Dyn. 45, 2647–2666 (2015).

  41. Piecuch, C. G. & Ponte, R. M. Buoyancy-driven interannual sea level changes in the tropical South Atlantic. J. Phys. Oceanogr. 43, 533–547 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  42. Almar, R. et al. Response of the Bight of Benin (Gulf of Guinea, West Africa) coastline to anthropogenic and natural forcing, part 1: wave climate variability and impacts on the longshore sediment transport. Cont. Shelf Res. 110, 48–59 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  43. Woodworth, P. L. A note on the nodal tide in sea level records. J. Coast. Res. 28, 316–323 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  44. Swart, N. C. & Fyfe, J. C. Observed and simulated changes in the Southern Hemisphere surface westerly wind-stress. Geophys. Res. Lett. 39, L16711 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  45. Merrifield, M. A., Thompson, P. R. & Lander, M. Multidecadal sea level anomalies and trends in the western tropical Pacific. Geophys. Res. Lett. 39, L13602 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  46. Bengtsson, L., Hodges, K. & Keenlyside, N. Will extratropical storms intensify in a warmer climate? J. Clim. 22, 2276–2301 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  47. Takahashi, C. & Watanabe, M. Pacific trade winds accelerated by aerosol forcing over the past two decades. Nat. Clim. Change 6, 768–772 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  48. Slangen, A. B. A. et al. Projecting twenty-first century regional sea-level changes. Clim. Change 124, 317–332 (2014).

  49. Vousdoukas, M. I., Mentaschi, L., Voukouvalas, E., Verlaan, M. & Feyen, L. Extreme sea levels on the rise along Europe’s coasts. Earth’s Future 5, 304–323 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  50. Arns, A. et al. Sea-level rise induced amplification of coastal protection design heights. Sci. Rep. 7, 40171 (2017).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  51. Pujol, M. I. et al. DUACS DT2014: the new multi-mission altimeter data set reprocessed over 20 years. Ocean Sci. 12, 1067–1090 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  52. Merrifield, M. A., Becker, J. M., Ford, M. & Yao, Y. Observations and estimates of wave-driven water level extremes at the Marshall Islands. Geophys. Res. Lett. 41, 7245–7253 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  53. Ardhuin, F. & Roland, A. Coastal wave reflection, directional spread, and seismoacoustic noise sources. J. Geophys. Res. 117, C00J20 (2012).

    Google Scholar 

  54. Idier, D., Paris, F., Le Cozannet, G., Boulahya, F. & Dumas, F. Sea-level rise impacts on the tides of the European Shelf. Cont. Shelf Res. 137, 56–71 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  55. Stopa, J. E. & Cheung, K. F. Intercomparison of wind and wave data from the ECMWF Reanalysis Interim and the NCEP Climate Forecast System Reanalysis. Ocean Model. 75, 65–83 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  56. Wang, X. L. & Swail, V. R. Climate change signal and uncertainty in projections of ocean wave heights. Clim. Dyn. 26, 109–126 (2006).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  57. Hemer, M. A. Historical trends in Southern Ocean storminess: long-term variability of extreme wave heights at Cape Sorell, Tasmania. Geophys. Res. Lett. 37, L18601 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  58. Komar, P. Beach Processes and Sedimentation. 2nd ed. (Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River, 1998).

  59. Holman, R. & Sallenger, A. Setup and swash on a natural beach. J. Geophys. Res. 90, 945–953 (1985).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  60. Stockdon, H. F. & Holman, R. A. Estimation of wave phase speed and nearshore bathymetry from video imagery. J. Geophys. Res. 105, 22015–22033 (2000).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  61. Di Leonardo, S. & Ruggiero, P. Regional scale sandbar variability: observations from the US Pacific Northwest. Cont. Shelf Res. 95, 74–88 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  62. Dangendorf, S. et al. Evidence for long-term memory in sea level. Geophys. Res. Lett. 41, 5530–5537 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  63. Von Storch, H. & Zwiers, F. Statistical Analysis in Climate Research (Cambridge Univ. Press, Cambridge, 1999).

Download references


The authors are grateful to all people and institutions who provided data used in this study, including F. Lyard for providing FES2014 tidal data. R.A. received support from French grants through ANR (COASTVAR ANR-14-ASTR-0019). B.M. and G.L.C. received funding from the ECLISEA (European advances on CLImate services for coasts and SEAs) project, funded through the ERA4CS (European Research Area for Climate Services) framework. This work was supported by the CNES (Centre National d'Etudes Spatiales). It is based on observations from the Topex/Poseidon and Jason 1/2 missions. This work is a contribution to the LEFE/IMPHALA project.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations



A.M. performed the analysis, created all figures and wrote the early drafts and final version of the manuscript. A.M., B.M. and R.A. participated in the elaboration of the study and early drafts. R.A. computed the contributions from waves. All authors participated in the interpretation of the results, in text revisions and in the final versions of the manuscript.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Angélique Melet.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Additional information

Publisher’s note: Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Figures 1–9 and Supplementary note

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Melet, A., Meyssignac, B., Almar, R. et al. Under-estimated wave contribution to coastal sea-level rise. Nature Clim Change 8, 234–239 (2018).

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