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Origin of spatial variation in US East Coast sea-level trends during 1900–2017

Naturevolume 564pages400404 (2018) | Download Citation


Identifying the causes of historical trends in relative sea level—the height of the sea surface relative to Earth’s crust—is a prerequisite for predicting future changes. Rates of change along the eastern coast of the USA (the US East Coast) during the past century were spatially variable, and relative sea level rose faster along the Mid-Atlantic Bight than along the South Atlantic Bight and the Gulf of Maine. Past studies suggest that Earth’s ongoing response to the last deglaciation1,2,3,4,5, surface redistribution of ice and water5,6,7,8,9 and changes in ocean circulation9,10,11,12,13 contributed considerably to this large-scale spatial pattern. Here we analyse instrumental data14,15 and proxy reconstructions4,12 using probabilistic methods16,17,18 to show that vertical motions of Earth’s crust exerted the dominant control on regional spatial differences in relative sea-level trends along the US East Coast during 1900–2017, explaining most of the large-scale spatial variance. Rates of coastal subsidence caused by ongoing relaxation of the peripheral forebulge associated with the last deglaciation are strongest near North Carolina, Maryland and Virginia. Such structure indicates that Earth’s elastic lithosphere is thicker than has been assumed in other models19,20,21,22. We also find a substantial coastal gradient in relative sea-level trends over this period that is unrelated to deglaciation and suggests contributions from twentieth-century redistribution of ice and water. Our results indicate that the majority of large-scale spatial variation in long-term rates of relative sea-level rise on the US East Coast is due to geological processes that will persist at similar rates for centuries.

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Data availability

The tide gauge and GPS data that support the findings of this study are available from the Permanent Service for Mean Sea Level (http://www.psmsl.org/) and Système d’Observation du Niveau des Eaux Littorales (http://www.sonel.org/), respectively. The proxy reconstructions are available from published databases4,12 and included with the model code (see ‘Code availability’ section). The GIA model predictions used to generate the results in this study are included with the model code (see ‘Code availability’ section). Maps in display items were produced using the Mapping Toolbox in MATLAB.

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


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Funding came from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution’s Investment in Science Fund; Harvard University and from NSF awards 1558939, 1558966 and 1458921 and from NASA awards NNH16CT01C, NNX17AE17G and 80NSSC17K0698. We acknowledge conversations with S. Adhikari, B.D. Hamlington, F.W. Landerer, S.J. Lentz and P.R. Thompson.

Reviewer information

Nature thanks M. King, R. Rietbroek and the other anonymous reviewer for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

Author information


  1. Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Woods Hole, MA, USA

    • Christopher G. Piecuch
  2. Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, USA

    • Peter Huybers
    •  & Jerry X. Mitrovica
  3. Boston College, Boston, MA, USA

    • Carling C. Hay
  4. Tufts University, Medford, MA, USA

    • Andrew C. Kemp
  5. Atmospheric and Environmental Research, Inc., Lexington, MA, USA

    • Christopher M. Little
    •  & Rui M. Ponte
  6. Los Gatos, CA, USA

    • Martin P. Tingley


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C.G.P. and P.H. jointly conceived the study. C.G.P., P.H. and M.P.T. formulated the model framework. C.C.H. and J.X.M. provided the GIA model solutions. A.C.K. provided the sea-level index points. C.G.P. performed the analyses and wrote the manuscript with input from all authors.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Christopher G. Piecuch.

Extended data figures and tables

  1. Extended Data Fig. 1 Study region.

    Map of the US East Coast and individual coastal states. Two white stars indicate Cape Cod (north) and Cape Hatteras (south), demarcating the three study regions: Gulf of Maine, Mid-Atlantic Bight and South Atlantic Bight.

Supplementary information

  1. Supplementary Information

    This file contains a Supplementary Discussion, additional references and Supplementary Figs. 1–8.

  2. Supplementary Tables

    This file contains Supplementary Tables 1–30.

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