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

Like the sea level trends observed by satellite altimetry (see Section, the global distribution of thermosteric sea level trends is not spatially uniform. This is illustrated by Figure 5.15b and Figure 5.16b, which show the geographical distribution of thermosteric sea level trends over two different periods, 1993 to 2003 and 1955 to 2003 respectively (updated from Lombard et al., 2005). Some regions experienced sea level rise while others experienced a fall, often with rates that are several times the global mean. However, the patterns of thermosteric sea level rise over the approximately 50-year period are different from those seen in the 1990s. This occurs because the spatial patterns, like the global average, are also subject to decadal variability. In other words, variability on different time scales may have different characteristic patterns.

An EOF analysis of gridded thermosteric sea level time series since 1955 (updated from Lombard et al., 2005) displays a spatial pattern that is similar to the spatial distribution of thermosteric sea level trends over the same time span (compare Figure 5.20 with Figure 5.16b). In addition, the first principal component is negatively correlated with the Southern Oscillation Index. Thus, it appears that ENSO-related ocean variability accounts for the largest fraction of variance in spatial patterns of thermosteric sea level. Similarly, decadal thermosteric sea level in the North Pacific and North Atlantic appears strongly influenced by the PDO and NAO respectively.

Figure 5.20

Figure 5.20. (a) First mode of the EOF decomposition of the gridded thermosteric sea level time series of yearly temperature data down to 700 m from Ishii et al. (2006). (b) The normalised principal component (black solid curve) is highly correlated with the negative Southern Oscillation Index (dotted red curve).

For the recent years (1993–2003), the geographic distribution of observed sea level trends (Figure 5.15a) shows correlation with the spatial patterns of thermosteric sea level change (Figure 5.15b). This suggests that at least part of the non-uniform pattern of sea level rise observed in the altimeter data over the past decade can be attributed to changes in the ocean’s thermal structure, which is itself driven by surface heating effects and ocean circulation. Note that the steric changes due to salinity changes have not been included in these figures due to insufficient salinity data in parts of the World Ocean.

Ocean salinity changes, while unimportant for sea level at the global scale, can have an effect on regional sea level (e.g., Antonov et al., 2002; Ishii et al., 2006; Section 5.5.3). For example, in the subpolar gyre of the North Atlantic, especially in the Labrador Sea, the halosteric contribution nearly counteracts the thermosteric contribution. This observational result is supported by results from data assimilation into models (e.g., Stammer et al., 2003). Since density changes can result not only from surface buoyancy fluxes but also from the wind, a simple attribution of density changes to buoyancy forcing is not possible.

While much of the non-uniform pattern of sea level change can be attributed to thermosteric volume changes, the difference between observed and thermosteric spatial trends show a high residual signal in a number of regions, especially in the southern oceans. Part of these residuals is likely due to the lack of ocean temperature coverage in remote oceans as well as in deep layers (below 700 m), and to regional salinity change.