This chapter assesses the current state of knowledge of the rate of change of global average and regional sea level in relation to climate change. We focus on the 20th and 21st centuries. However, because of the slow response to past conditions of the oceans and ice sheets and the consequent land movements, we consider changes in sea level prior to the historical record, and we also look over a thousand years into the future.
Past changes in sea level
From recent analyses, our conclusions are as follows:
Factors affecting present day sea level change
Global average sea level is affected by many factors. Our assessment of the most important is as follows.
The sum of these components indicates a rate of eustatic sea level rise (corresponding to a change in ocean volume) from 1910 to 1990 ranging from -0.8 to 2.2 mm/yr, with a central value of 0.7 mm/yr. The upper bound is close to the observational upper bound (2.0 mm/yr), but the central value is less than the observational lower bound (1.0 mm/yr), i.e., the sum of components is biased low compared to the observational estimates. The sum of components indicates an acceleration of only 0.2 mm/yr/century, with a range from -1.1 to +0.7 mm/yr/century, consistent with observational finding of no acceleration in sea level rise during the 20th century. The estimated rate of sea level rise from anthropogenic climate change from 1910 to 1990 (from modelling studies of thermal expansion, glaciers and ice sheets) ranges from 0.3 to 0.8 mm/yr. It is very likely that 20th century warming has contributed significantly to the observed sea level rise, through thermal expansion of sea water and widespread loss of land ice.
Projected sea level changes from 1990 to 2100
Projections of components contributing to sea level change from 1990 to 2100 (this period is chosen for consistency with the IPCC Second Assessment Report), using a range of AOGCMs following the IS92a scenario (including the direct effect of sulphate aerosol emissions) give:
Including thawing of permafrost, deposition of sediment, and the ongoing contributions from ice sheets as a result of climate change since the Last Glacial Maximum, we obtain a range of global-average sea level rise from 0.11 to 0.77 m. This range reflects systematic uncertainties in modelling.
For the 35 SRES scenarios, we project a sea level rise of 0.09 to 0.88 m for 1990 to 2100, with a central value of 0.48 m. The central value gives an average rate of 2.2 to 4.4 times the rate over the 20th century. If terrestrial storage continued at its present rates, the projections could be changed by -0.21 to +0.11 m. For an average AOGCM, the SRES scenarios give results which differ by 0.02 m or less for the first half of the 21st century. By 2100, they vary over a range amounting to about 50% of the central value. Beyond the 21st century, sea level rise will depend strongly on the emissions scenario.
The West Antarctic ice sheet (WAIS) has attracted special attention because it contains enough ice to raise sea level by 6 m and because of suggestions that instabilities associated with its being grounded below sea level may result in rapid ice discharge when the surrounding ice shelves are weakened. The range of projections given above makes no allowance for ice-dynamic instability of the WAIS. It is now widely agreed that major loss of grounded ice and accelerated sea level rise are very unlikely during the 21st century.
Our confidence in the regional distribution of sea level change from AOGCMs is low because there is little similarity between models. However, models agree on the qualitative conclusion that the range of regional variation is substantial compared with the global average sea level rise. Nearly all models project greater than average rise in the Arctic Ocean and less than average rise in the Southern Ocean.
Land movements, both isostatic and tectonic, will continue through the 21st century at rates which are unaffected by climate change. It can be expected that by 2100 many regions currently experiencing relative sea level fall will instead have a rising relative sea level.
Extreme high water levels will occur with increasing frequency (i.e. with reducing
return period) as a result of mean sea level rise. Their frequency may be further
increased if storms become more frequent or severe as a result of climate change.
Longer term changes
If greenhouse gas concentrations were stabilised, sea level would nonetheless continue to rise for hundreds of years. After 500 years, sea level rise from thermal expansion may have reached only half of its eventual level, which models suggest may lie within ranges of 0.5 to 2.0 m and 1 to 4 m for CO2 levels of twice and four times pre-industrial, respectively.
Glacier retreat will continue and the loss of a substantial fraction of the total glacier mass is likely. Areas that are currently marginally glaciated are most likely to become ice-free.
Ice sheets will continue to react to climate change during the next several thousand years even if the climate is stabilised. Models project that a local annual-average warming of larger than 3°C sustained for millennia would lead to virtually a complete melting of the Greenland ice sheet. For a warming over Greenland of 5.5°C, consistent with mid-range stabilisation scenarios, the Greenland ice sheet contributes about 3 m in 1,000 years. For a warming of 8°C, the contribution is about 6 m, the ice sheet being largely eliminated. For smaller warmings, the decay of the ice sheet would be substantially slower.
Current ice dynamic models project that the WAIS will contribute no more than 3 mm/yr to sea level rise over the next thousand years, even if significant changes were to occur in the ice shelves. However, we note that its dynamics are still inadequately understood to make firm projections, especially on the longer time-scales.
Apart from the possibility of an internal ice dynamic instability, surface melting will affect the long-term viability of the Antarctic ice sheet. For warmings of more than 10°C, simple runoff models predict that a zone of net mass loss would develop on the ice sheet surface. Irreversible disintegration of the WAIS would result because the WAIS cannot retreat to higher ground once its margins are subjected to surface melting and begin to recede. Such a disintegration would take at least a few millennia. Thresholds for total disintegration of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet by surface melting involve warmings above 20°C, a situation that has not occurred for at least 15 million years and which is far more than predicted by any scenario of climate change currently under consideration.
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