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.
Subscribe to Journal
Get full journal access for 1 year
only $3.90 per issue
All prices are NET prices.
VAT will be added later in the checkout.
Rent or Buy article
Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.
All prices are NET prices.
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.
Gornitz, V. & Seeber, L. Vertical crustal movements along the East Coast, North America, from historic and late Holocene sea level data. Tectonophysics 178, 127–150 (1990).
Peltier, W. R. & Tushingham, A. M. Influence of glacial isostatic adjustment on tide gauge measurements of secular sea level change. J. Geophys. Res. 96 (B4), 6779–6796 (1991).
Davis, J. L. & Mitrovica, J. X. Glacial isostatic adjustment and the anomalous tide gauge record of eastern North America. Nature 379, 331–333 (1996).
Engelhart, S. E. & Horton, B. P. Holocene sea-level database for the Atlantic coast of the United States. Quat. Sci. Rev. 54, 12–25 (2012).
Kopp, R. E. Does the mid-Atlantic United States sea level acceleration hot spot reflect ocean dynamic variability? Geophys. Res. Lett. 40, 3981–3985 (2013).
Miller, K. G., Kopp, R. E., Horton, B. P., Browning, J. V. & Kemp, A. C. A geological perspective on sea-level rise and its impacts along the U.S. mid-Atlantic coast. Earth. Fut. 1, 3–18 (2013).
Karegar, M. A., Dixon, T. H. & Engelhart, S. E. Subsidence along the Atlantic Coast of North America: Insights from GPS and late Holocene relative sea-level data. Geophys. Res. Lett. 43, 3126–3133 (2016).
Karegar, M. A., T. H. Dixon, R. Malservisi, J. Kusche, & S. E. Engelhart. Nuisance flooding and relative sea-level rise: the importance of present-day land motion. Sci. Rep. 7, 1197 (2017).
Engelhart, S. E., Horton, B. P., Douglas, B. C., Peltier, W. R. & Törnqvist, T. E. Spatial variability of late Holocene 20th century sea-level rise along the Atlantic coast of the United States. Geology 37, 1115–1118 (2009).
Douglas, B. C. Global sea level rise. J. Geophys. Res. 96 (C4), 6981–6992 (1991).
Yin, J. & Goddard, P. B. Oceanic control of sea level rise patterns along the East Coast of the United States. Geophys. Res. Lett. 40, 5514–5520 (2013).
Kemp, A. C. et al. Late Holocene sea- and land-level change on the U. S. Southeastern Atlantic coast. Mar. Geol. 357, 90–100 (2014).
Wake, L., Milne, G. & Leuliette, E. 20th century sea-level change along the eastern US: unravelling the contributions from steric changes, Greenland Ice Sheet mass balance and Late Pleistocene glacial loading. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 250, 572–580 (2006).
Holgate, S. J. et al. New data systems and products at the Permanent Service For Mean Sea Level. J. Coast. Res. 29, 493–504 (2013).
Santamaría-Gómez, A. et al. Uncertainty of the 20th century sea-level rise due to vertical land motion errors. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 473, 24–32 (2017).
Tingley, M. P. & Huybers, P. Recent temperature extremes at high northern latitudes unprecedented in the past 600 years. Nature 496, 201–205 (2013).
Piecuch, C. G., Huybers, P. & Tingley, M. P. Comparison of full and empirical Bayes approaches for inferring sea-level changes from tide-gauge data. J. Geophys. Res. Oceans 122, 2243–2258 (2017).
Cressie, N. & Wikle, C. K. Statistics for Spatio-Temporal Data 1–588 (John Wiley & Sons, 2011).
Peltier, W. R. Global glacial isostasy and the surface of the ice-age Earth: the ICE-5G (VM2) model and GRACE. Annu. Rev. Earth Planet. Sci. 32, 111–149 (2004).
Peltier, W. R., Argus, D. F. & Drummond, R. Space geodesy constrains ice age terminal deglaciation: the global ICE-6G_C (VM5a) model. J. Geophys. Res. Solid Earth 120, 450–487 (2015).
Lambeck, K., Rouby, H., Purcell, A., Sun, Y. & Sambridge, M. Sea level and global ice volumes from the Last Glacial Maximum to the Holocene. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 111, 15296–15303 (2014).
Love, R. et al. The contribution of glacial isostatic adjustment to projections of sea-level change along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts of North America. Earth. Fut. 4, 440–464 (2016).
Hay, C. C., Morrow, E., Kopp, R. E. & Mitrovica, J. X. Probabilistic reanalysis of twentieth-century sea-level rise. Nature 517, 481–484 (2015).
Uchupi, E. & Aubrey, D. G. Suspect terranes in the North American margins and relative sea-levels. J. Geol. 96, 79–90 (1988).
Wöppelmann, G. & Marcos, M. Vertical land motion as a key to understanding sea level change and variability. Rev. Geophys. 54, 64–92 (2016).
Creveling, J. R., Mitrovica, J. X., Clark, P. U., Waelbroeck, C. & Pico, T. Predicted bounds on peak global mean sea level during marine isotope stages 5a and 5c. Quat. Sci. Rev. 163, 193–208 (2017).
Kopp, R. E. et al. Probabilistic 21st and 22nd century sea-level projections at a global network of tide-gauge sites. Earth. Fut. 2, 383–406 (2014).
Hamlington, B. D. et al. Observation-driven estimation of the spatial variability of 20th century sea level rise. J. Geophys. Res. Oceans 123, 2129–2140 (2018).
Rahmstorf, S. et al. Exceptional twentieth-century slowdown in Atlantic Ocean overturning circulation. Nat. Clim. Chang. 5, 475–480 (2015).
Caesar, L., Rahmstorf, S., Robinson, A., Feulner, G. & Saba, V. Observed fingerprint of a weakening Atlantic Ocean overturning circulation. Nature 556, 191–196 (2018).
Thornalley, D. J. R. et al. Anomalously weak Labrador Sea convection and Atlantic overturning during the past 150 years. Nature 556, 227–230 (2018).
McCarthy, G. D., Haigh, I. D., Hirschi, J. J.-M., Grist, J. P. & Smeed, D. A. Ocean impact on decadal Atlantic climate variability revealed by sea-level observations. Nature 521, 508–510 (2015).
Permanent Service for Mean Sea Level (PSMSL) Tide Gauge Data http://www.psmsl.org/data/obtaining/ (PSMSL, 2018).
Altamimi, Z., Collilieux, X. & Métivier, L. ITRF2008: an improved solution of the international terrestrial reference frame. J. Geod. 85, 457–473 (2011).
Engelhart, S. E., Horton, B. P. & Kemp, A. C. Holocene sea level changes along the United States’ Atlantic Coast. Oceanography 24, 70–79 (2011).
Bos, M. S., Williams, S. D. P., Araújo, I. B. & Bastos, L. The effect of temporal correlated noise on the sea level rate and acceleration uncertainty. Geophys. J. Int. 196, 1423–1430 (2014).
Banerjee, S., Carlin, B. P. & Gelfand, A. E. Hierarchical Modeling and Analysis for Spatial Data 1–448 (Chapman and Hall, Boca Raton, 2004).
Woodworth, P. L., Morales Maqueda, M. A., Roussenov, V. M., Williams, R. G. & Hughes, C. W. Mean sea-level variability along the northeast American Atlantic coast and the roles of the wind and the overturning circulation. J. Geophys. Res. Oceans 119, 8916–8935 (2014).
Thompson, P. R. & Mitchum, G. T. Coherent sea level variability on the North Atlantic western boundary. J. Geophys. Res. Oceans 119, 5676–5689 (2014).
Piecuch, C. G., Dangendorf, S., Ponte, R. M. & Marcos, M. Annual sea level changes on the North American Northeast Coast: influence of local winds and barotropic motions. J. Clim. 29, 4801–4816 (2016).
Santamaría-Gómez, A. & Mémin, A. Geodetic secular velocity errors due to interannual surface loading deformation. Geophys. J. Int. 202, 763–767 (2015).
Gelman, A., Carlin, J. B., Stern, H. S. & Rubin, D. B. Bayesian Data Analysis 2nd edn, 1–668 (Chapman and Hall, Boca Raton, 2004).
Zhang, H. Inconsistent estimation and asymptotically equal interpolations in model-based geostatistics. J. Am. Stat. Assoc. 99, 250–261 (2004).
Tingley, M. P. & Huybers, P. A Bayesian algorithm for reconstructing climate anomalies in space and time. Part I: development and applications to paleoclimate reconstruction problems. J. Clim. 23, 2759–2781 (2010).
Mannshardt, E., Craigmile, P. F. & Tingley, M. P. Statistical modeling of extreme value behavior in North American tree-ring density series. Clim. Change 117, 843–858 (2013).
Tierney, J. E. & Tingley, M. P. A Bayesian, spatially-varying calibration model for the TEX86 proxy. Geochim. Cosmochim. Acta 127, 83–106 (2014).
Werner, J. P. & Tingley, M. P. Technical Note: Probabilistically constrained proxy age-depth models within a Bayesian hierarchical reconstruction model. Clim. Past 11, 533–545 (2015).
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.
Nature thanks M. King, R. Rietbroek and the other anonymous reviewer for their contribution to the peer review of this work.
The authors declare no competing interests.
Publisher’s note: Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.
Extended data figures and tables
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.
About this article
Cite this article
Piecuch, C.G., Huybers, P., Hay, C.C. et al. Origin of spatial variation in US East Coast sea-level trends during 1900–2017. Nature 564, 400–404 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-018-0787-6
Journal of Climate (2020)
Geophysical Research Letters (2020)
Multiple Representations of Topographic Pattern and Geographic Context Determine Barrier Dune Resistance, Resilience, and the Overlap of Coastal Biogeomorphic Models
Annals of the American Association of Geographers (2020)
SSRN Electronic Journal (2019)
The Relationship Between U.S. East Coast Sea Level and the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation: A Review
Journal of Geophysical Research: Oceans (2019)