The IPCC sea level numbers

• 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}

• Current global model studies project that the Antarctic ice sheet will remain too cold for widespread surface melting and is expected to gain in mass due to increased snowfall. However, net loss of ice mass could occur if dynamical ice discharge dominates the ice sheet mass balance. {10.7}

• Both past and future anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions will continue to contribute to warming and sea level rise for more than a millennium, due to the timescales required for removal of this gas from the atmosphere. {7.3, 10.3}

(The above quotes document everything the SPM says about future sea level rise. The numbers in wavy brackets refer to the chapters of the full report, to be released in May.)

What is included in these sea level numbers?

Let us have a look at how these numbers were derived. They are made up of four components: thermal expansion, glaciers and ice caps (those exclude the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets), ice sheet surface mass balance, and ice sheet dynamical imbalance.

1. Thermal expansion (warmer ocean water takes up more space) is computed from coupled climate models. These include ocean circulation models and can thus estimate where and how fast the surface warming penetrates into the ocean depths.

2. The contribution from glaciers and ice caps (not including Greenland and Antarctica), on the other hand, is computed from a simple empirical formula linking global mean temperature to mass loss (equivalent to a rate of sea level rise), based on observed data from 1963 to 2003. This takes into account that glaciers slowly disappear and therefore stop contributing – the total amount of glacier ice left is actually only enough to raise sea level by 15-37 cm.

3. The contribution from the two major ice sheets is split into two parts. What is called surface mass balance refers simply to snowfall minus surface ablation (ablation is melting plus sublimation). This is computed from an ice sheet surface mass balance model, with the snowfall amounts and temperatures derived from a high-resolution atmospheric circulation model. This is not the same as the coupled models used for the IPCC temperature projections, so results from this model are scaled to mimic different coupled models and different climate scenarios. (A fine point: this surface mass balance does include some “slow” changes in ice flow, but this is a minor contribution.)

4. Finally, there is another way how ice sheets can contribute to sea level rise: rather than melting at the surface, they can start to flow more rapidly. This is in fact increasingly observed around the edges of Greenland and Antarctica in recent years: outlet glaciers and ice streams that drain the ice sheets have greatly accelerated their flow. Numerous processes contribute to this, including the removal of buttressing ice shelves (i.e., ice tongues floating on water but in places anchored on islands or underwater rocks) or the lubrication of the ice sheet base by meltwater trickling down from the surface through cracks. These processes cannot yet be properly modelled, but observations suggest that they have contributed 0 – 0.7 mm/year to sea level rise during the period 1993-2003. The projections in the table given above assume that this contribution simply remains constant until the end of this century.

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