IPCC Fourth Assessment Report: Climate Change 2007
Climate Change 2007: Working Group I: The Physical Science Basis

TS.3.3.3 Changes in Sea Level

Over the 1961 to 2003 period, the average rate of global mean sea level rise is estimated from tide gauge data to be 1.8 ± 0.5 mm yr–1 (see Figure TS.18). For the purpose of examining the sea level budget, best estimates and 5 to 95% confidence intervals are provided for all land ice contributions. The average thermal expansion contribution to sea level rise for this period was 0.42 ± 0.12 mm yr–1, with significant decadal variations, while the contribution from glaciers, ice caps and ice sheets is estimated to have been 0.7 ± 0.5 mm yr–1 (see Table TS.3). The sum of these estimated climate-related contributions for about the past four decades thus amounts to 1.1 ± 0.5 mm yr–1, which is less than the best estimate from the tide gauge observations (similar to the discrepancy noted in the TAR). Therefore, the sea level budget for 1961 to 2003 has not been closed satisfactorily. {4.8, 5.5}

Global Mean Sea Level

Figure TS.18

Figure TS.18. Annual averages of the global mean sea level based on reconstructed sea level fields since 1870 (red), tide gauge measurements since 1950 (blue) and satellite altimetry since 1992 (black). Units are in mm relative to the average for 1961 to 1990. Error bars are 90% confidence intervals. {Figure 5.13}

Table TS.3. Contributions to sea level rise based upon observations (left columns) compared to models used in this assessment (right columns; see Section 9.5 and Appendix 10.A for details). Values are presented for 1993 to 2003 and for the last four decades, including observed totals. {Adapted from Tables 5.3 and 9.2}

Sources of Sea Level Rise Sea Level Rise (mm yr–1) 
1961–2003 1993–2003 
Observed Modelled Observed Modelled 
Thermal expansion 0.42 ± 0.12 0.5 ± 0.2 1.6 ± 0.5 1.5 ± 0.7 
Glaciers and ice caps 0.50 ± 0.18 0.5 ± 0.2 0.77 ± 0.22 0.7 ± 0.3 
Greenland Ice Sheet 0.05 ± 0.12a 0.21 ± 0.07a 
Antarctic Ice Sheet 0.14 ± 0.41a 0.21 ± 0.35a 
Sum of individual climate contributions to sea level rise 1.1 ± 0.5 1.2 ± 0.5 2.8 ± 0.7 2.6 ± 0.8 
Observed total sea level rise 1.8 ± 0.5 (tide gauges)   3.1 ± 0.7 (satellite altimeter)   
Difference (Observed total minus the sum of observed climate contributions) 0.7 ± 0.7   0.3 ± 1.0   


a prescribed based upon observations (see Section 9.5)

The global average rate of sea level rise measured by TOPEX/Poseidon satellite altimetry during 1993 to 2003 is 3.1 ± 0.7 mm yr–1. This observed rate for the recent period is close to the estimated total of 2.8 ± 0.7 mm yr–1 for the climate-related contributions due to thermal expansion (1.6 ± 0.5 mm yr–1) and changes in land ice (1.2 ± 0.4 mm yr–1). Hence, the understanding of the budget has improved significantly for this recent period, with the climate contributions constituting the main factors in the sea level budget (which is closed to within known errors). Whether the faster rate for 1993 to 2003 compared to 1961 to 2003 reflects decadal variability or an increase in the longer-term trend is unclear. The tide gauge record indicates that faster rates similar to that observed in 1993 to 2003 have occurred in other decades since 1950. {5.5, 9.5}

There is high confidence that the rate of sea level rise accelerated between the mid-19th and the mid-20th centuries based upon tide gauge and geological data. A recent reconstruction of sea level change back to 1870 using the best available tide records provides high confidence that the rate of sea level rise accelerated over the period 1870 to 2000. Geological observations indicate that during the previous 2000 years, sea level change was small, with average rates in the range 0.0 to 0.2 mm yr–1. The use of proxy sea level data from archaeological sources is well established in the Mediterranean and indicates that oscillations in sea level from about AD 1 to AD 1900 did not exceed ±0.25 m. The available evidence indicates that the onset of modern sea level rise started between the mid-19th and mid-20th centuries. {5.5}

Precise satellite measurements since 1993 now provide unambiguous evidence of regional variability of sea level change. In some regions, rates of rise during this period are up to several times the global mean, while in other regions sea level is falling. The largest sea level rise since 1992 has taken place in the western Pacific and eastern Indian Oceans (see Figure TS.19). Nearly all of the Atlantic Ocean shows sea level rise during the past decade, while sea level in the eastern Pacific and western Indian Oceans has been falling. These temporal and spatial variations in regional sea level rise are influenced in part by patterns of coupled ocean-atmosphere variability, including ENSO and the NAO. The pattern of observed sea level change since 1992 is similar to the thermal expansion computed from ocean temperature changes, but different from the thermal expansion pattern of the last 50 years, indicating the importance of regional decadal variability. {5.5}

Sea Level Change Patterns

Figure TS.19

Figure TS.19. (Top) Monthly mean sea level (mm) curve for 1950 to 2000 at Kwajalein (8°44’N, 167°44’E). The observed sea level (from tide gauge measurements) is in blue, the reconstructed sea level in red and the satellite altimetry record in green. Annual and semiannual signals have been removed from each time series and the tide gauge data have been smoothed. (Bottom) Geographic distribution of short-term linear trends in mean sea level for 1993 to 2003 (mm yr–1) based on TOPEX/Poseidon satellite altimetry. {Figures 5.15 and 5.18}

Observations suggest increases in extreme high water at a broad range of sites worldwide since 1975. Longer records are limited in space and under-sampled in time, so a global analysis over the entire 20th century is not feasible. In many locations, the secular changes in extremes were similar to those in mean sea level. At others, changes in atmospheric conditions such as storminess were more important in determining long-term trends. Interannual variability in high water extremes was positively correlated with regional mean sea level, as well as to indices of regional climate such as ENSO in the Pacific and NAO in the Atlantic. {5.5}