Rising Sea Levels Global Warming Essay Reference

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Sea Level Rise

The oceans are absorbing over 90% of the increased atmospheric heat associated with emissions from human activity.18 Like mercury in a thermometer, water expands as it warms up (this is referred to as “thermal expansion”) causing sea levels to rise. Melting of glaciers and ice sheets is also contributing to sea level rise at increasing rates.19

Since the late 1800s, tide gauges throughout the world have shown that global sea level has risen by about 8 inches. A new data set (Figure 2.25) shows that this recent rise is much greater than at any time in at least the past 2000 years.1 Since 1992, the rate of global sea level rise measured by satellites has been roughly twice the rate observed over the last century, providing evidence of additional acceleration.16

Projecting future rates of sea level rise is challenging. Even the most sophisticated climate models, which explicitly represent Earth’s physical processes, cannot simulate rapid changes in ice sheet dynamics, and thus are likely to underestimate future sea level rise. In recent years, “semi-empirical” methods have been developed to project future rates of sea level rise based on a simple statistical relationship between past rates of globally averaged temperature change and sea level rise. These models suggest a range of additional sea level rise from about 2 feet to as much as 6 feet by 2100, depending on emissions scenario.20,3,5,4 It is not clear, however, whether these statistical relationships will hold in the future, or that they fully explain historical behavior.9 Regardless of the amount of change by 2100, however, sea level rise is expected to continue well beyond this century as a result of both past and future emissions from human activities.

Scientists are working to narrow the range of sea level rise projections for this century. Recent projections show that for even the lowest emissions scenarios, thermal expansion of ocean waters21 and the melting of small mountain glaciers22 will result in 11 inches of sea level rise by 2100, even without any contribution from the ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica. This suggests that about 1 foot of global sea level rise by 2100 is probably a realistic low end. On the high end, recent work suggests that 4 feet is plausible.23,3,6,7,8 In the context of risk-based analysis, some decision makers may wish to use a wider range of scenarios, from 8 inches to 6.6 feet by 2100.10,2 In particular, the high end of these scenarios may be useful for decision makers with a low tolerance for risk (see Figure 2.26 on global sea level rise).10,2 Although scientists cannot yet assign likelihood to any particular scenario, in general,higher emissions scenarios that lead to more warming would be expected to lead to higher amounts of sea level rise.

Nearly 5 million people in the U.S. live within 4 feet of the local high-tide level (also known as mean higher high water). In the next several decades, storm surges and high tides could combine with sea level rise and land subsidence to further increase flooding in many of these regions.24 Sea level rise will not stop in 2100 because the oceans take a very long time to respond to warmer conditions at the Earth’s surface. Ocean waters will therefore continue to warm and sea level will continue to rise for many centuries at rates equal to or higher than that of the current century.25,26 In fact, recent research has suggested that even present day carbon dioxide levels are sufficient to cause Greenland to melt completely over the next several thousand years.27

Figure 2.26: Past and Projected Changes in Global Sea Level Rise

Figure 2.26: Estimated, observed, and possible future amounts of global sea level rise from 1800 to 2100, relative to the year 2000. Estimates from proxy data1 (for example, based on sediment records) are shown in red (1800-1890, pink band shows uncertainty), tide gauge data are shown in blue for 1880-2009,16 and satellite observations are shown in green from 1993 to 2012.17 The future scenarios range from 0.66 feet to 6.6 feet in 2100.2 These scenarios are not based on climate model simulations, but rather reflect the range of possible scenarios based on other scientific studies. The orange line at right shows the currently projected range of sea level rise of 1 to 4 feet by 2100, which falls within the larger risk-based scenario range. The large projected range reflects uncertainty about how glaciers and ice sheets will react to the warming ocean, the warming atmosphere, and changing winds and currents. As seen in the observations, there are year-to-year variations in the trend. (Figure source: Adapted from Parris et al. 20122 with input from NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory).


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