IPCC Fourth Assessment Report: Climate Change 2007
Climate Change 2007: Working Group I: The Physical Science Basis Changes in Extreme Sea Level

Societal impacts of sea level change primarily occur via the extreme levels rather than as a direct consequence of mean sea level changes. Apart from non-climatic events such as tsunamis, extreme sea levels occur mainly in the form of storm surges generated by tropical or extra tropical cyclones. Secular changes and decadal variability in storminess are discussed in Chapter 3. Studies of variations in extreme sea levels during the 20th century based on tide gauge data are fewer than studies of changes in mean sea level for several reasons. A study on changes in extremes, which are caused by changes in mean sea level as well as changes in surges, is more complex than the study of mean sea level changes. Moreover, the hourly sampling interval normally used in tide gauge records is not always sufficient to accurately capture the true extreme. Among the different parameters often used to describe extremes, annual maximum surge is a good indicator of climatic trends. For study of long records extending back to the 19th century or before, annual maximum surge-at-high-water (defined as the maximum of the difference between observed high water and the predicted tide at high water) is a better-suited parameter because during that period high waters and not the full tidal curve were recorded.

Studies of the longest records of extremes are inevitably restricted to a small number of locations. From observed sea level extremes at Liverpool since 1768, Woodworth and Blackman (2002) concluded that the annual maximum surge-at-high-water was larger in the late 18th, late 19th and late 20th centuries than for most of the 20th century, qualitatively consistent with the long-term variability in storminess from meteorological data. From the tide gauge record at Brest from 1860 to 1994, Bouligand and Pirazzoli (1999) found an increasing trend in annual maxima and 99th percentile of surges; however, a decreasing trend was found during the period 1953 to 1994. From non-tidal residuals (‘surges’) at San Francisco since 1858, Bromirski et al. (2003) concluded that extreme winter residuals have exhibited a significant increasing trend since about 1950, a trend that is attributed to an increase in storminess during this period. Zhang et al. (2000) concluded from records at 10 stations along the east coast of the USA since 1900 that the rise in extreme sea level closely followed the rise in mean sea level. A similar conclusion can be drawn from a recent study of Firing and Merrifield (2004), who found long-term increases in the number and height of daily extremes at Honolulu (interestingly, the highest-ever value being due an anticyclonic oceanic eddy system in 2003), but no evidence for an increase relative to the underlying upward mean sea level trend.

An analysis of 99th percentiles of hourly sea level at 141 stations over the globe for recent decades (Woodworth and Blackman, 2004) showed that there is evidence for an increase in extreme high sea level worldwide since 1975. In many cases, the secular changes in extremes were found to be similar to those in mean sea level. Likewise, interannual variability in extremes was found to be correlated with regional mean sea level, as well as to indices of regional climate patterns.