A new scientific analysis finds that the Earth’s oceans are rising nearly three times as rapidly as they were throughout most of the 20th century, one of the strongest indications yet that a much feared trend of not just sea level rise, but its acceleration, is now underway.
(From The Washington Post / By Chris Mooney) — “We have a much stronger acceleration in sea level rise than formerly thought,” said Sönke Dangendorf, a researcher with the University of Siegen in Germany who led the study along with scientists at institutions in Spain, France, Norway and the Netherlands.
Their paper, just out in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, isn’t the first to find that the rate of rising seas is itself increasing — but it finds a bigger rate of increase than in past studies. The new paper concludes that before 1990, oceans were rising at about 1.1 millimeters per year, or just 0.43 inches per decade. From 1993 through 2012, though, it finds that they rose at 3.1 millimeters per year, or 1.22 inches per decade.
The cause, said Dangendorf, is that sea level rise throughout much of the 20th century was driven by the melting of land-based glaciers and the expansion of seawater as it warms, but sea level rise in the 21st century has now, on top of that, added in major contributions from the ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica.
“The sea level rise is now three times as fast as before 1990,” Dangendorf said.
Studying the changing rate of sea level rise is complicated by the fact that scientists only have a precise satellite record of its rate going back to the early 1990s. Before that, the records rely on tide gauges spread around the world in various locations.
But sea level rise varies widely in different places, due to the rising and sinking of land, large-scale gravitational effects on the waters of the globe and other local factors. So scientists have struggled to piece together a longer record that merges together what we know from satellites with these older sources of information.
The new study takes a crack at this problem by trying to piece together a sea level record for the 20th century, before the beginning of the satellite record, by adjusting the results of local tide gauges based on an understanding of the factors affecting sea level rise in a given region, and then also weighting different regions differently in the final analysis. That’s how it came up with a relatively small rate of sea level rise from 1900 through 1990, followed by a much faster one afterward.