IPCC Fourth Assessment Report: Climate Change 2007
Climate Change 2007: Working Group I: The Physical Science Basis Interannual and Decadal Variability and Long-Term Changes in Sea Level

Sea level records contain a considerable amount of interannual and decadal variability, the existence of which is coherent throughout extended parts of the ocean. For example, the global sea level curve in Figure 5.13 shows an approximately 10 mm rise and fall of global mean sea level accompanying the 1997–1998 ENSO event. Over the past few decades, the time series of the first EOF of Church et al. (2004) represents ENSO variability, as shown by a significant (negative) correlation with the Southern Oscillation Index. The signature of the 1997–1998 El Niño is also clear in the altimetric maps of sea level anomalies (see Section Model results suggest that large volcanic eruptions produce interannual to decadal fluctuations in the global mean sea level (see Section 9.5.2).

Holgate and Woodworth (2004) concluded that the 1990s had one of the fastest recorded rates of sea level rise averaged along the global coastline (~4 mm yr–1), slightly higher than the altimetry-based open ocean sea level rise (3 mm yr–1). However, their analysis also shows that some previous decades had comparably large rates of coastal sea level rise (e.g., around 1980; Figure 5.17). White et al. (2005) confirmed the larger sea level rise during the 1990s around coastlines compared to the open ocean but found that in some previous periods the coastal rate was smaller than the open ocean rate, and concluded that over the last 50 years the coastal and open ocean rates of change were the same on average. The global reconstruction of Church et al. (2004) and Church and White (2006) also exhibits large decadal variability in the rate of global mean sea level rise, and the 1993 to 2003 rate has been exceeded in some previous decades (Figure 5.17). The variability is smaller in the global reconstruction (standard deviation of overlapping 10-year rates is 1.1 mm yr–1) than in the Holgate and Woodworth (2004) coastal time series (standard deviation 1.7 mm yr–1). The rather low temporal correlation (r = 0.44) between the two time series suggests that the statistical uncertainty in the linear trends calculated from either data set probably underestimates the systematic uncertainty in the results (Section 5.5.6).

Figure 5.17

Figure 5.17. Overlapping 10-year rates of global sea level change from tide gauge data sets (Holgate and Woodworth, 2004, in solid black; Church and White, 2006, in dashed black) and satellite altimetry (updated from Cazenave and Nerem, 2004, in green), and contributions to global sea level change from thermal expansion (Ishii et al., 2006, in solid red; Antonov et al., 2005, in dashed red) and climate-driven land water storage (Ngo-Duc et al., 2005, in blue). Each rate is plotted against the middle of its 10-year period.

Interannual or longer variability is a major reason why no long-term acceleration of sea level has been identified using 20th-century data alone (Woodworth, 1990; Douglas, 1992). Another possibility is that the sparse tide gauge network may have been inadequate to detect it if present (Gregory et al., 2001). The longest records available from Europe and North America contain accelerations of the order of 0.4 mm yr–1 per century between the 19th and 20th century (Ekman, 1988; Woodworth et al., 1999). For the reconstruction shown in Figure 5.13, Church and White (2006) found an acceleration of 1.3 ± 0.5 mm yr–1 per century over the period 1870 to 2000. These data support an inference that the onset of acceleration occurred during the 19th century (see Section 9.5.2).

Geological observations indicate that during the last 2,000 years (i.e., before the recent rise recorded by tide gauges), sea level change was small, with an average rate of only 0.0 to 0.2 mm yr–1 (see Section 6.4.3). The use of proxy sea level data from archaeological sources is well established in the Mediterranean. Oscillations in sea level from 2,000 to 100 yr before present did not exceed ±0.25 m, based on the Roman-Byzantine-Crusader well data (Sivan et al., 2004). Many Roman and Greek constructions are relatable to the level of the sea. Based on sea level data derived from Roman fish ponds, which are considered to be a particularly reliable source of such information, together with nearby tide gauge records, Lambeck et al. (2004) concluded that the onset of the modern sea level rise occurred between 1850 and 1950. Donnelly et al. (2004) and Gehrels et al. (2004), employing geological data from Connecticut, Maine and Nova Scotia salt-marshes together with nearby tide gauge records, demonstrated that the sea level rise observed during the 20th century was in excess of that averaged over the previous several centuries.

The joint interpretation of the geological observations, the longest instrumental records and the current rate of sea level rise for the 20th century gives a clear indication that the rate of sea level rise has increased between the mid-19th and the mid-20th centuries.