At a glance – How much is sea level rising?
Posted on 29 August 2023 by John Mason, BaerbelW
On February 14, 2023 we announced our Rebuttal Update Project. This included an ask for feedback about the added “At a glance” section in the updated basic rebuttal versions. This weekly blog post series highlights this new section of one of the updated basic rebuttal versions and serves as a “bump” for our ask. This week features “How much is sea level rising?“. More will follow in the upcoming weeks. Please follow the Further Reading link at the bottom to read the full rebuttal and to join the discussion in the comment thread there.
At a glance
You’d think it would be obvious, wouldn’t you? If ice (or snow) melts, you get water. Water flows downhill through gravity and collects wherever it can be retained. In areas that see regular winter snowfalls, the processes involved are familiar. Snow-capped mountains look photogenic but along comes the eventual thaw and the river levels rise sharply with all the meltwater.
Now apply the same basic principles to glaciers and ice-caps. It should not come as a surprise that exactly the same thing happens and where that meltwater collects is ultimately the oceans. Note here that we’re talking about land-based ice, not sea-ice: sea-ice is already part of the ocean so does not affect sea levels as it forms and melts every year. But melt enough land-ice and you get very significant change indeed.
What do we mean by very significant? Well, let’s look at the transition out of the last ice-age that dominated the last 20,000 years. It began with ice-caps over parts of Europe and North America and ended not so long ago with much of that ice gone but with sea levels having risen by more than 120 metres. If that’s not significant, what is?
There’s not enough ice left on Earth to raise sea levels by that whopping amount now, but there is enough to raise the oceans by more than 60 metres. Over what sort of time-frame? Well, we know that the current rate of sea level rise is some 3.7 mm a year, or nearly an inch and a half per decade. A lot of that is due to the expansion of the oceans – as things are warmed up they expand. But the rate is accelerating. How fast do we think it can get?
We do have the past to consider: during the glacial meltdown of the past 20,000 years, there was a period ominously named Meltwater Pulse 1A that began some 14,700 years ago. During this enhanced period of melting, sea levels rose by between 16 and 25 metres in about 400–500 years. That’s roughly 40–60 mm per year or 16-23 inches a decade.
Could such drastic rates of sea level rise happen again? Probably not but nevertheless it shows what is possible as ice-sheets collapse in a warming world. But even if sea level rise stays at its current rate (it won’t), that’s getting on for a two-metre increase over the coming 300 years and a one-half to one-metre increase over the next 100 years. Now go anywhere affected by tides and think about all the communities of people that live and work along the shore. Pick the biggest spring tides, take a look at where they reach at high water, maybe watch the waves and surge when a storm occurs, then imagine an extra two metres of water on top of that.
And try to imagine being the decision-makers in the coming decades and centuries, who will have to work out what best to do. What would you think of the people all those years ago, who went around pretending this was not happening? Not favourably, for sure – because of such behaviour, that is how history will remember them.
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In case you’d like to explore more of our recently updated rebuttals, here are the links to all of them: