IPCC Fourth Assessment Report: Climate Change 2007
Climate Change 2007: Working Group I: The Physical Science Basis Climate-Driven Change in Land Water Storage

Continental water storage includes water (both liquid and solid) stored in subsurface saturated (groundwater) and unsaturated (soil water) zones, in the snowpack, and in surface water bodies (lakes, artificial reservoirs, rivers, floodplains and wetlands). Changes in concentrated stores, most notably very large lakes, are relatively well known from direct observation. In contrast, global estimates of changes in distributed surface stores (soil water, groundwater, snowpack and small areas of surface water) rely on computations with detailed hydrological models coupled to global ocean-atmosphere circulation models or forced by observations. Such models estimate the variation in land water storage by solving the water balance equation. The Land Dynamics (LaD) model developed by Milly and Shmakin (2002) provides global 1° by 1° monthly gridded time series of root zone soil water, groundwater and snowpack for the last two decades. With these data, the contributions of time-varying land water storage to sea level rise in response to climate change have been estimated, resulting in a small positive sea level trend of about 0.12 mm yr–1 for the last two decades, with larger interannual and decadal fluctuations (Milly et al., 2003). From a land surface model forced by a global climatic data set based on standard reanalysis products and on observations, land water changes during the past five decades were found to have low-frequency (decadal) variability of about 2 mm in amplitude but no significant trend (Ngo-Duc et al., 2005). These decadal variations are related to groundwater and are caused by precipitation variations. They are strongly negatively correlated with the de-trended thermosteric sea level (Figure 5.17). This suggests that the land water contribution to sea level and thermal expansion partly compensate each other on decadal time scales. However, this conclusion depends on the accuracy of the precipitation in reanalysis products. Anthropogenic Change in Land Water Storage

The amount of anthropogenic change in land water storage systems cannot be estimated with much confidence, as already discussed by Church et al. (2001). A number of factors can contribute to sea level rise. First, natural groundwater systems typically are in a condition of dynamic equilibrium where, over long time periods, recharge and discharge are in balance. When the rate of groundwater pumping greatly exceeds the rate of recharge, as is often the case in arid or even semi-arid regions, water is removed permanently from storage. The water that is lost from groundwater storage eventually reaches the ocean through the atmosphere or surface flow, resulting in sea level rise. Second, wetlands contain standing water, soil moisture and water in plants equivalent to water roughly 1 m deep. Hence, wetland destruction contributes to sea level rise. Over time scales shorter than a few years, diversion of surface waters for irrigation in the internally draining basins of arid regions results in increased evaporation. The water lost from the basin hydrologic system eventually reaches the ocean. Third, forests store water in living tissue both above and below ground. When a forest is removed, transpiration is eliminated so that runoff is favoured in the hydrologic budget.

On the other hand, impoundment of water behind dams removes water from the ocean and lowers sea level. Dams have led to a sea level drop over the past few decades of –0.5 to –0.7 mm yr–1 (Chao, 1994; Sahagian et al., 1994). Infiltration from dams and irrigation may raise the water table, storing more water. Gornitz (2001) estimated –0.33 to –0.27 mm yr–1 sea level change equivalent held by dams (not counting additional potential storage due to subsurface infiltration).

It is very difficult to provide accurate estimates of the net anthropogenic contribution, given the lack of worldwide information on each factor, although the effect caused by dams is possibly better known than other effects. According to Sahagian (2000), the sum of the above effects could be of the order of 0.05 mm yr–1 sea level rise over the past 50 years, with an uncertainty several times as large.

In summary, our assessment of the land hydrology contribution to sea level change has not led to a reduction in the uncertainty compared to the TAR, which estimated the rather wide ranges of –1.1 to +0.4 mm yr–1 for 1910 to 1990 and –1.9 to +1.0 mm yr–1 for 1990. However, indirect evidence from considering other contributions to the sea level budget (see Section 5.5.6) suggests that the land contribution either is small (<0.5 mm yr–1) or is compensated for by unaccounted or underestimated contributions.