The causes of sea-level rise since 1900

Abstract

The rate of global-mean sea-level rise since 1900 has varied over time, but the contributing factors are still poorly understood1. Previous assessments found that the summed contributions of ice-mass loss, terrestrial water storage and thermal expansion of the ocean could not be reconciled with observed changes in global-mean sea level, implying that changes in sea level or some contributions to those changes were poorly constrained2,3. Recent improvements to observational data, our understanding of the main contributing processes to sea-level change and methods for estimating the individual contributions, mean another attempt at reconciliation is warranted. Here we present a probabilistic framework to reconstruct sea level since 1900 using independent observations and their inherent uncertainties. The sum of the contributions to sea-level change from thermal expansion of the ocean, ice-mass loss and changes in terrestrial water storage is consistent with the trends and multidecadal variability in observed sea level on both global and basin scales, which we reconstruct from tide-gauge records. Ice-mass loss—predominantly from glaciers—has caused twice as much sea-level rise since 1900 as has thermal expansion. Mass loss from glaciers and the Greenland Ice Sheet explains the high rates of global sea-level rise during the 1940s, while a sharp increase in water impoundment by artificial reservoirs is the main cause of the lower-than-average rates during the 1970s. The acceleration in sea-level rise since the 1970s is caused by the combination of thermal expansion of the ocean and increased ice-mass loss from Greenland. Our results reconcile the magnitude of observed global-mean sea-level rise since 1900 with estimates based on the underlying processes, implying that no additional processes are required to explain the observed changes in sea level since 1900.

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Fig. 1: Observed GMSL and contributing processes.
Fig. 2: Fraction of the 40-year-average summed rate explained by each contributor.
Fig. 3: Observed basin-mean sea level and contributing processes.

Data availability

The resulting global and basin-scale reconstructions, the time series of global and basin sea-level changes and its contributors, grids with local sea-level and solid-Earth deformation due to contemporary GRD effects, and the individual ensemble members are available at https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.3862995.

Code availability

The codes to compute the ensemble of observed sea-level changes and contributing processes, and the post-processing routines to compute statistics and to generate the figures are available at https://github.com/thomasfrederikse/sealevelbudget_20c.

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Acknowledgements

All figures were made using Generic Mapping Tools (GMT). Parts of this research (T.F., F.L., S.A., L. Caron) were conducted at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which is operated for NASA under contract with the California Institute of Technology. S.D. acknowledges the University of Siegen for funding a research stay at JPL. L. Cheng is supported by National Key R&D Program of China (2017YFA0603200).

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Contributions

T.F. and F.L. conceived and designed the study. L. Caron and S.A. provided the GIA data and provided guidance on the solid-Earth processes. D.P. provided glacier datasets and helped interpret the underlying uncertainties. V.W.H. provided the TWS reconstruction. P.H. prepared the tide-gauge dataset. L.Z. and L. Cheng helped analyse the steric datasets. Y.-H.W. created the reservoir databases. S.D. provided guidance on the sea-level reconstruction approach. T.F. performed the analysis and wrote the manuscript. All authors contributed to the discussion and helped write the manuscript.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Thomas Frederikse.

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Peer review information Nature thanks Benoît Meyssignac and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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Extended data figures and tables

Extended Data Fig. 1 Schematic overview of the computation of reconstructed sea level and the contributors.

Steps with a shaded background involve steps where each ensemble member is perturbed: for steps shown in bold, the estimate is drawn from a probability density function; for steps in italic, the estimate is randomly chosen from a pool of estimates. All the steps are repeated for each of the 5,000 ensemble members, until the final step, where all ensemble members are combined to estimate the mean and confidence interval of the global-mean and basin-mean sea-level budget and its components. Steps and arrows in orange refer to estimates of steric sea level, red refers to estimates of ocean mass, dark blue refers to GIA, light blue refers to tide-gauge observations, yellow refers to VLM, turquoise refers to satellite altimetry, and purple refers to the budget analysis. The global-mean steric reconstruction for 1900–2018 is from ref. 15.

Extended Data Fig. 2 Comparison with other recent sea-level reconstructions.

All panels show observed GMSL and the sum of contributors from this study and other recent GMSL reconstructions4,5,8,20. a, Annual time series and their 90% confidence intervals. b, 30-year-average rates of the GMSL reconstructions. c, Linear trends over the time intervals indicated. The shaded regions denote the 90% confidence interval. The values are relative to the 2002–2018 mean.

Extended Data Fig. 3 Map of the regions and basins.

a, The ocean basins (shading) and the regions (symbols) that belong to each basin. The shape of the region symbols denotes how the station is corrected for VLM; the size denotes the number of years for which the region provides data. The percentages in the legend show the relative size of the basin as a fraction of the sum of all basins. Each region consists of one tide-gauge station or multiple stations within a 10-km radius. b, The number of regions that provide data in a given year for each basin.

Extended Data Fig. 4 Linear trends in regional RSL due to ocean-mass changes, GIA and steric changes over three periods.

a, c, e, Local RSL trends due to contemporary GRD effects, for 1900–2018 (a), 1957–2018 (c) and 1993–2018 (e). b, RSL changes due to GIA. d, f, Local steric sea-level changes over 1957–2018 (d) and 1993–2018 (f). All trends show the ensemble-mean values. The colour scale varies between panels.

Extended Data Fig. 5 Comparison of two GIA models.

Each panel shows observed sea level, the sum of contributors and the basin-mean sea-level trend due to GIA, using the model used in this study41 (solid lines) and using the ICE6G D (VM5a) model42. Shaded areas indicate 90% confidence intervals. a, GMSL. bg, Basin-mean sea level.

Extended Data Fig. 6 Central values of individual estimates and our composite final estimate of each barystatic contributor.

a, The glacier estimates; data from this study and refs. 16,18,21. M&D, missing and disappeared glaciers (as determined by ref. 16). b, The Greenland Ice Sheet estimates; data from refs. 14,18,21,24,25. GP, contribution from Greenland peripheral glaciers. c, The Antarctic Ice Sheet estimates; data from refs. 23,24. d, The TWS estimates; data from refs. 17,26,27,28,53. All estimates are shown relative to the average height over 2003–2005. The inset in each panel shows all the estimates over 2002–2018. Shaded areas indicate 90% confidence intervals.

Extended Data Fig. 7 Individual estimates of global-mean steric sea-level changes.

The coloured time series show global-mean steric sea-level changes of each individual estimate15,30,31,32 and the averaged estimate used here (black). The shaded areas indicate 90% confidence intervals.

Extended Data Table 1 Trends in observed basin-mean sea level and its contributors

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Frederikse, T., Landerer, F., Caron, L. et al. The causes of sea-level rise since 1900. Nature 584, 393–397 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-020-2591-3

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