The IPCC sea level numbers

The sea level rise numbers published in the new IPCC report (the Fourth Assessment Report, AR4) have already caused considerable confusion. Many media articles and weblogs suggested there is good news on the sea level issue, with future sea level rise expected to be a lot less compared to the previous IPCC report (the Third Assessment Report, TAR). Some articles reported that IPCC had reduced its sea level projection from 88 cm to 59 cm (35 inches to 23 inches) , some even said it was reduced from 88 cm to 43 cm (17 inches), and there were several other versions as well (see “Broad Irony”). These statements are not correct and the new range up to 59 cm is not the full story. Here I will try to clarify what IPCC actually said and how these numbers were derived. (But if you want to skip the details, you can go straight to the critique or the bottom line).

What does IPCC say?

The Summary for Policy Makers (SPM) released last month provides the following table of sea level rise projections:

Sea Level Rise

(m at 2090-2099 relative to 1980-1999)


Model-based range

excluding future rapid dynamical

changes in ice flow

B1 scenario

0.18 – 0.38

A1T scenario

0.20 – 0.45

B2 scenario

0.20 – 0.43

A1B scenario

0.21 – 0.48

A2 scenario

0.23 – 0.51

A1FI scenario

0.26 – 0.59

It is this table on which the often-cited range of 18 to 59 cm is based. The accompanying text reads:

• Model-based projections of global average sea level rise at the end of the 21st century (2090-2099) are shown in Table SPM-3. For each scenario, the midpoint of the range in Table SPM-3 is within 10% of the TAR model average for 2090-2099. The ranges are narrower than in the TAR mainly because of improved information about some uncertainties in the projected contributions15. {10.6}.

Footnote 15: TAR projections were made for 2100, whereas projections in this Report are for 2090-2099. The TAR would have had similar ranges to those in Table SPM-3 if it had treated the uncertainties in the same way.

• Models used to date do not include uncertainties in climate-carbon cycle feedback nor do they include the full effects of changes in ice sheet flow, because a basis in published literature is lacking. The projections include a contribution due to increased ice flow from Greenland and Antarctica at the rates observed for 1993-2003, but these flow rates could increase or decrease in the future. For example, if this contribution were to grow linearly with global average temperature change, the upper ranges of sea level rise for SRES scenarios shown in Table SPM-3 would increase by 0.1 m to 0.2 m. Larger values cannot be excluded, but understanding of these effects is too limited to assess their likelihood or provide a best estimate or an upper bound for sea level rise. {10.6}

• If radiative forcing were to be stabilized in 2100 at A1B levels, thermal expansion alone would lead to 0.3 to 0.8 m of sea level rise by 2300 (relative to 1980–1999). Thermal expansion would continue for many centuries, due to the time required to transport heat into the deep ocean. {10.7}

• Contraction of the Greenland ice sheet is projected to continue to contribute to sea level rise after 2100. Current models suggest ice mass losses increase with temperature more rapidly than gains due to precipitation and that the surface mass balance becomes negative at a global average warming (relative to pre-industrial values) in excess of 1.9 to 4.6°C. If a negative surface mass balance were sustained for millennia, that would lead to virtually complete elimination of the Greenland ice sheet and a resulting contribution to sea level rise of about 7 m. The corresponding future temperatures in Greenland are comparable to those inferred for the last interglacial period 125,000 years ago, when paleoclimatic information suggests reductions of polar land ice extent and 4 to 6 m of sea level rise. {6.4, 10.7}

• Dynamical processes related to ice flow not included in current models but suggested by recent observations could increase the vulnerability of the ice sheets to warming, increasing future sea level rise. Understanding of these processes is limited and there is no consensus on their magnitude. {4.6, 10.7}

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