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Sea level rise: The New York Times got the story

Filed under: — stefan @ 15 November 2010

Yesterday, the New York Times ran an excellent cover story on sea level rise, together with two full pages inside the paper, fancy graphs and great photographs (online version here). The author, Justin Gillis, researched the piece for months, visited Greenland and talked to most of the leading scientists in the field – many of which he cites in the article. The science presented is correct and up-to-date and the story is a gripping read. That’s how science journalism should be!

What is going on in Greenland? (c) The New York Times.

In the area of sea level rise, science has moved along quite a bit since the last IPCC report was published in 2007 (see for example my commentary at Nature together with that of Jason Lowe and Jonathan Gregory), and Gillis shows that most of the experts now assume a considerably higher rise until 2100 than IPCC: about one meter, potentially even more. I also had to change my position on this – only a few years ago I assumed lower values, too (see for example our book Our Threatened Oceans). By now, several US states use our projections for coastal planning (e.g. California, North Carolina) and Obama’s science adviser John Holdren shows them in his presentations.

For those interested in the projections in metric units and broken down for emission scenarios, please consult the original version. (c) The New York Times

Over the years, I’ve worked with dozens of journalists that reported on our work, but seldom was the cooperation so professional and the result so convincing as with Gillis. It is an example for how professional journalism can prove its advantage over the growing competition by blogs – few bloggers could afford such in-depth research to give a broad overview of the state-of-the-art of a particular scientific issue. This is on a completely different level than the standard quickly-cobbled-together pieces based on a press release by Science or Nature, which are so hilariously spoofed by Martin Robbins (who made me laugh out loud).

Naturally, every journalist would love to do a big story like Gillis – it’s up to the editors to grant them time and travel expenses for such a project, and then two pages of the paper. Kudos to the New York Times for making this possible even in times of tight budgets!

231 Responses to “Sea level rise: The New York Times got the story”

  1. 201


    Some background can be found in this well referenced blog post:

    especially figure 4.

    If your question isn’t answered there, you may try to make it more specific.

  2. 202
    Laws of Nature says:

    Re 196: “Rahmstorf’s model is not a “non-linear extrapolation”. It needs to be fed a temperature scenario in order to produce a rate of SLR. You could use it to produce a “linear trend with about 1foot per century”.

    is wrong!
    Rahmsdorf uses a Non-Linear Model and extrapolates the data towards 2100.
    He uses something like
    d_level /d_t = a (T – T_0) + b d_T / d_t

    and this is very nonlinear in time t!

    In Re #30 he says himself:
    “Let’s wait another 15 years for the next data point, then we may see something. -stefan”

    So I keep on wondering, why his model should be taken as the most valid one, especially since everone seems to also be comfortable with only a sea level increase of about 1ft until 2100 as a linear extrapolation of the data would indicate.


  3. 203
    J. Bob says:

    #200 Martin,
    after reading your papers, I thought you would have that info at your fingertips. I don’t think one has to go through a lot of what you mention, to get elevation accuracy. Surveyors do that every day. Who do you think takes geological positions at the tidal stations? There is something called “Certification”, to make sure survey standards are met.

    Not to belabor the point, geological up “lift” does effect sea level measurements. The point is how much do we really know about the “uplift”, except from more recent, higher accuracy readings. So one must extrapolate backward, where a significant amount of sea level data resides. Hence a 50-100 year trend line could have significant changes (errors), due to “uplift”, which is what I was trying to get at.

    Here’s some info that might help you. One of my surveyor friends has a Trimble R-8. It’s spec’ed to about 3mm elevation initially positioned, BUT subject to atmospheric conditions, as are ALL GPS systems.

    Thank you for the reference on pressure altimeters, I’ll take a look, but talking to retired pilots, we’re talking elevation accuracy in meters.

    I’m not sure what the comment of Gandhi, has to do with the discussion. It’s kind of like asking what you think of Arjuba & Krishna’s dialog, on science, in the Bhagavad Gita. I think a better question would be, what caused the Renaissance and intellectual explosion that occurred. While at the same time, the Eastern, and Middle Eastern areas seemed to go into a stagnation period?

  4. 204

    #203 J. Bob

    I have a funny feeling that if Martin Vermeer actually told you the conclusion, you would then just say. Well, how did you come to that conclusion… in which case I suggest you refer back to his post #200

  5. 205
    J. Bob says:

    #204 John, we meet again. While scientific papers are nice to reference, what is the accuracy of the instrumentation in the field? It’s a bit of a walk from the lab to “main street” where data is being taken, instrumentation being calibrated.

    There are however, many things one can do with tidal gauges. The following is a quote from the book “The Measurement of the Power Spectra” 1958, by Blackman & Tukey (co-discover of the FFT).
    “We were able to discover, in the general wave record a very weak low-frequency peak which would have surely escaped our attention without spectral analysis. This peak, it turns out, is almost certainly due to a swell from the Indian Ocean, 10,000 miles distant. Physical dimensions are 1mm high, a kilometer long”

  6. 206
    Hank Roberts says:

    J.Bob wants a simple answer, and doesn’t like being told this question doesn’t have a simple answer.

    Fig. 4 of the linked skepticalscience page does seem a good answer, though you either trust the scientists or would have to learn their fields to understand exactly why they have come to those conclusions, and why they overlap but aren’t identical.

  7. 207

    #205 J. Bob

    Luckily there is more than one thermometer on the planet.

    Ever ask yourself how scientists estimate temperatures on other planets?

    But what does understanding thermal expansion and oceanic cycles have to do with how accurate temperature measurements might be when calibrated, modeled given error bounds and modeled to remove aberrations readings?

    Economics: Balancing Economies
    October Leading Edge: The Cuccinelli ‘Witch Hunt”

    Fee & Dividend: Our best chanceLearn the IssueSign the Petition
    A Climate Minute: Natural CycleGreenhouse EffectClimate Science HistoryArctic Ice Melt

  8. 208
    J. Bob says:

    #207 John, I believe this thread is about sea level, and it’s measurement error, not temperature. However in answer to your question, one method of measuring extra terrestrial temperatures is with multiple IR band-pass filters.

    You might go to this site:
    They have a discussion on sea levels and combining info from different sensors.

    #206 Hank, no one said, or at least I didn’t, say there is a simple answer. I have said that this problem is a terribly non-linear system. Having dealt with more non-linear problems then I care to think about, Hamlet’s quote comes to mind:
    “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy”.

  9. 209

    #208 J. Bob Sorry, lack of specificity, i.e. context on the part of others, combined with my chaotic nature can through me off a bit now and then. Plus, I’m working on a lot of different things as usual, so my idiot potential can sometimes be great. At certain times under certain circumstances I have less confidence in my own accuracy regrading target selection. However, in some ways the answer is applicable. Sea level is measured in many ways and of course also accounts now for tectonic shift, uplift and compression which can affect perspective from land.

    As to sea level, what do you think is the easiest way to calculate sea level rise?

  10. 210

    #208 J. Bob

    As to your reference to wattsupwiththat

    I don’t read that site. Feel free to call me foolish and ignorant. Feel free to claim that I am ignoring the other side of the debate.

    In reality, ignoring that web site is not ignoring the other side of the debate though. It is ignoring the wannabe and pretend knowitalls that think they have something revolutionairy to talk about when they focus on uncertainty.

    I prefer to listen to uncertainty discussions by experienced scientists working in the field of climate science not the pretenders that love to wave the flag of uncertainty just to get attention but whose arguments when placed in context of the science too often fall outside the outliers of reason and evidence.

    For future reference, if you want me to read something, send me to a peer reviewed paper, or even better the peer response. That is worth my time. For uncertainty questions I like to hear real scientists discussing uncertainty. I will be at the AGU in San Francisco. Will you?

  11. 211

    Re. my #210


    “In reality, ignoring that web site is not ignoring the other side of the debate though. It is ignoring the wannabe and pretend knowitalls that think they have something revolutionairy to talk about when they focus on uncertainty.”

    should read

    In reality, ignoring that web site is not ignoring the other side of the debate though. It is ignoring the wannabe and pretend knowitalls that think they have somethingrevolutionarytotalkabout when they focusonuncertainty.

  12. 212
    J. Bob says:

    #209-211 Well John, at least your honest with your opinion, which indeed is a gift. And while you don’t like certain sites, that is your prerogative. However, many times it’s not the site itself, but WHAT IT LEADS TO that’s important. In this case, to these sites that have some interesting graphs and references on the topic of old and new sea levels changes:

    In the previous post, I gave you the wrong web site, it should have been ( take a deep breath):
    It shows and REFERENCES merging different sensors used to measure sea levels.

    Looking at the first ref. above (file:Recent_Sea Level_Rise_png), it closely follow what I have been looking at, for the past weeks. That is, trying to form a picture as to what really is happening, (between sea levels & global temperatures), to the extent possible, with available sea level & global temp data data.

    P.S. John there is no easy way to measure sea levels to the accuracy we are talking about. But be careful in your comment about only reading peer reviewed material. I’ve seen enough peer reviewed papers not worth the paper their printed on. Now would your criteria, exclude looking in patent offices around the world? You might want to look at history as to how many “classic” papers were NEVER peer reviewed, but spawned an explosion in knowledge.

  13. 213
    Hank Roberts says:

    J. Bob, wattsup has the same misunderstanding about measurements of sea level as about measurements of temperature.

    > no easy way to measure sea levels to the accuracy we are talking about.

    Yes, actually, there is. It’s what they do as Martin has pointed out to you.

    Combining many measurements gives accuracy far greater than just one instrument used one time can give you. It’s a subtle point hard to understand.

  14. 214
    J. Bob says:

    #213 Hank, only if you are measuring the exact same thing, for starters.

  15. 215

    #212 J. Bob

    You are correct, it’s sometimes about what they point to.

    Actually, I’m more interested in peer response and I agree with you that some papers are not worth the paper they are printed on, which is why I like to look at peer response.

    Probably a good example is Ferenc Miskolcz

    In this case, the paper was so bad that it did not even rate a published peer response. It was so bad, no one wanted to waste their time. But that is a good example of a non published peer response.

  16. 216
    J. Bob says:

    #213 Hank, sorry, but got called away and didn’t finish. The other assumption is that you have a mean at, or close to, zero. Suppose you are making a batch of thermometers, with a mean error of 0.75 deg., and 3 sigma of .25 deg. If the 3 sigma accuracy tolerance of +-1.0 deg all pass, but the average measurement error is still 0.75 deg., no matter how many thermometers you use.

    #215 John, I can give you a better comment, that Dr. Otto Schmidt said ( he developed the logic gate, the “Schmidt Trigger”) at table. Something like “Out of over 120 papers published in xxxx area, only 5-10 were of any value”.

  17. 217
    Hank Roberts says:

    > Suppose you are making a batch of thermometers

    It doesn’t happen as you imagine. Try it yourself with ice water or boiling water. Any one thermometer from your batch of cheap ones may read -1 or +213 instead of 0 and 212. Repeat measurements with a single thermometer: you won’t see plus or minus a full degree between repeat measurements. Calibrate, adjust, repeat.

    Yes, GPS from satellites is a bit harder than that to calibrate and repeat, but it’s the same approach — multiple measurements get you better accuracy. You apparently believe the published work can’t be as accurate as the papers say. But you can’t prove it by declaiming it. You’d have to understand it.
    As Martin pointed out, there’s a lot of studying needed.

  18. 218
    Anonymous Coward says:

    Laws of Nature (#202),
    These T in the equation represent temperatures. Use different temperatures and you get a different result. You can make the resulting trend as linear as you want by picking the right temperatures.

    You effectively claim that the rate of SLR is independent of temperature. That’s obviously unphysical. That’s why we want a model for the sea level that takes changing temperatures into account.

  19. 219
    Hank Roberts says:

    and yes, I did mix Fahrenheit and Centigrade in that last example, sigh.
    I suggest waiting for a real scientist to explain why more measurements improves accuracy. It’s been written, all we need is a pointer.

  20. 220
    Martin Vermeer says:

    J. Bob,

    about the effect of crustal vertical motion on tide gauge readings, and using GPS:


  21. 221
    Martin Vermeer says:


    it’s complicated. It’s not just the sheer number of observations that improves the accuracy; there are also some “tricks” that allow you to get rid of some error sources.

    E.g., when you use GPS measurements from networks of permanent, continuously observing reference stations (CORS), you may get the long-term trend much more precisely than the absolute vertical position of any station. Even if the uncertainty in vertical position is several mm, if you take care not to change the station and its immediate environment, the vertical trend can be obtained much more precisely, as errors that are constant over time drop out. Something like 0.5 mm/yr appears well achievable with the current record.

    When using GPS positioning of a satellite by on-board GPS (as has been done from Topex/Poseidon onward, since 1992), the situation is even better. Also there, the “vertical” (radial) positioning accuracy is no better than a few mm, and worse than the “horizontal” (along-track, cross-track) accuracy; but we have the benefit of Kepler’s third law… it allows you to estimate the orbital mean radius — that is, the satellite’s mean height — when you know the orbital period. And more to the point, precisely track changes in it. And the orbital period can be very precisely estimated by just tracking the satellite over many, many periods. Like good wine, it only gets better with time :-)

    Of course you have to analyze the error contributions of the whole processing chain, including the radar altimeter itself and its calibration. See this article for a nicely written overview.

  22. 222

    JB 216: Suppose you are making a batch of thermometers, with a mean error of 0.75 deg., and 3 sigma of .25 deg. If the 3 sigma accuracy tolerance of +-1.0 deg all pass, but the average measurement error is still 0.75 deg., no matter how many thermometers you use.

    BPL: But they could measure CHANGES in the mean a lot more accurately, couldn’t they? And it’s changes in sea level we’re talking about.

  23. 223
    Laws of Nature says:

    Re: #218
    I am glad that we seem to agree on the type of model Rahmstorf used.
    However there is little indication for such a nonlinear behavior of the SLR in the last century, to my untrained eye it looks like a perfect linear trend with 1foot/century and quite contrary to your statement in #218 (“You effectively claim that the rate of SLR is independent of temperature. That’s obviously unphysical.” -I made no such claim) physics as usual would not make a big difference to that value. To reach Rahmstorf-sea levels you need an unparalleled greenland destabilization or something similar.
    This is why I asked how other (harmless) models are dismissed – I cited the poor translation of these Austrian climatologist, they seem to say, that recent data does NOT support a dramatic change in Greenland.

  24. 224
    Martin Vermeer says:

    Here a more recent article, unfortunately paywalled.

  25. 225
    J. Bob says:

    #220 Martin, thank you , that’s the kind of info I was looking for. It gives one an idea of how to “weight” the various components that make up just sea level measurements, and how to interpret them.

    #222 BPL, my point to Hank, was that using more sensors to measure something does not always automatically improve the “accuracy”. Relative & absolute accuracy requirements are based on the process. For some medical purposes, absolute accuracy is necessary. I agree, in tidal gauges, you are looking at relative changes. But like changing thermometers,where some of the tidal gauges “swapped”, when breaks in the data occur? That’s where measuring relative changes ONLY, breaks down. It reduces the quality of the data. A modern GPS system would have been handy, back then.

    You are now now merging, with recent GPS & radar altimeter “absolute” systems, with older ( and unknown “uplift”) relative tidal data, to form a composite of what is really happening with the sea level. Interesting challenge.

    #217 Hank, you might want to get info on how thermometers are fabricated & calibrated, primarily RTD’s. Omega, Minco or Gordan can supply that info. Omega puts out, or used to, a good catalog on that. There’s a bit more to just “calibrate, adjust, repeat”, or as they say in the “trade”, zero & span it.

  26. 226
    John Ransley says:

    I’ve just attended a geological conference where I got an update on the Holocene geomorphology of the eastern Australian coast. I was surprised to discover there was good evidence for mid-Holocene oscillations in sea level with a magnitude of about a metre. I haven’t seen this issue discussed in Realclimate commentary or even the threads. Can you please comment?

    Here is most of the abstract from a recent paper by Lewis, Mid-late Holocene sea-level variability in eastern Australia (2008)

    “A re-analysis of sea-level data from eastern Australia based on 115 calibrated C-14 ages is used to constrain the origin, timing and magnitude of sea-level change over the last 7000 years. We demonstrate that the Holocene sea-level highstand of +1.0–1.5 m was reached ~7000 cal yr BP and fell to its present position after 2000 yr BP. These findings are in contrast to most previous studies that relied on smaller datasets and did not include the now common conversion of conventional C-14 ages to calendar years. During this ~5000 year period of high sea level, growth hiatuses in oyster beds and tubeworms and lower elevations of coral microatolls are interpreted to represent short-lived oscillations in sea-level of up to 1 m during two intervals, beginning c. 4800 and 3000 cal yr BP. The rates of sea level rise and fall (1–2 mm yr-1) during these centennial-scale oscillations are comparable with current rates of sea-level rise. The origin of the oscillations is enigmatic but most likely the result of oceanographic and climatic changes, including wind strengths, ice ablation, and melt-water contributions of both Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets.”

    With respect to the argument that these oscillations are due to isostatic adjustments, Haworth (2002)write “There is sufficient evidence extending over 20° of latitude to suggest that north–south differences related to hydro-isostatic influence is limited or non-existent”

    love your website
    John Ransley

  27. 227
    Martin Vermeer says:

    John Ransley #226: yes, an interesting article. I read the article itself here. Note that I am just an amateur on this, but as you are asking for comment, I will try.

    I must say that I am less than convinced. You mention “good evidence”, but from what I see it is mostly based just two micro-atoll proxies from one location (Figure 4, Torres Strait) which to me look like outliers, and could have local causes. Yes, they also mention two hiatuses in other time series as confirming evidence (Figure 3), but still… note also that the spread among these proxies — the width of the grey band — is already +/- 0.5 m, and quite a bit larger than the drawn error bars.

    What also raises a red flag with me is that these rapid drops and rapid rises in sea level come in pairs. First, sea level drops as much as one meter; then, it immediately rises again by about one meter, back to the level we were at before the drop — and then, the slow descent continues as if nothing had happened.

    I have asked a colleague who is familiar with these things, but no response yet.

  28. 228
    John Ransley says:

    Martin Vermeer 227: Thanks. I will also consult a colleague and get back.

    PS: Correction: that was All of the Lewis abstract.

  29. 229
    John Ransley says:

    Martin Vermeer 227. I am just an amateur on this also, my geology training was not focussed on this field of study. The “good evidence” I referred to has been gathered from multiple locations. There are some dozen or so published refereed papers documenting this. See for example:

    Baker R.G.V, Haworth R J and Flood P.G. (2001b) Intertidal fixed sea level indicators of former Holocene sea-levels in Australia: a summary of sites and a review of methods and models. Quaternary International, 83-85, 257-273.

    The argument has been summarised informally as follows:

    “The Holocene sea-level oscillations match the extensively published glacial advances and retreats over the Holocene so if there is a cryospheric-oceanic exchange as suggested by the IPCC (ie melting glaciers and rising sea-levels or advancing glaciers and falling sea-levels) the problem is not one of science and mechanisms. The published fixed biological indicators, especially tubeworm evidence, is correct to centimetres. The evidence is from northwestern Western Australia through South Australia to Tasmania then up the Australian east coast to Torres Straits. What it shows is higher than present sea level in the mid-Holocene and that the hydro-isostatic warping of the continental shelf around Australia is not—as some researchers claim—sufficient to explain local variations.”

    Here also is the abstract from a recent submitted unpublished article by Peter G Flood and Robert G V Baker titled:

    Fixed Inter-tidal Biological Indicators and Multiple-notched Limestone Cliff Shorelines of Australasia: The Significance for Higher than Present Sea-level Models.

    Throughout Australasia there exist numerous locations where notches and multiple notches occur on the limestone cliff shorelines. These include: Halong Bay, Vietnam; Langkawi Island, Malaysia; the South China Sea Coast (notches in granites); Palawan Island, Phillipines; Phuket and Phangnga Bay islands in Thailand; and Rottnest Island, Western Australia. These notches occur at heights ranging from about 1m just above present day mid-tide level to approximately 3m above present. In addition, there are even higher notches that appear to have been exposed for a longer period than the lower notches and could be of Late Pleistocene age. The lower notches appear to be of Holocene origin. These notches are consistent with a two-stage Holocene relative sea level statistical polynomial regression model constructed from the fixed inter-tidal biological indicator (FIBI) oyster Saccostrea cucullata. This oyster data set is compiled from sites in Vietnam, the Singapore ‘tin’ islands and Hong Kong. The FIBI and notch distribution suggest rapid sea level change in the order of a metre (within an ~50 year duration) which have occurred prior to the input of anthropogenic GHGs. Indeed, the evidence suggests that sea surface temperatures have been warming since 1400 yr BP when sea-levels began to decline gradually from ~1.0m above present. This is contrary to the simple ‘warming effect and sea-level rise’ conclusion from the current climate change debate and the evidence suggests that there is a far more complex system at work in the ocean conveyor belt than a simple linear response system.”

  30. 230
    Martin Vermeer says:

    John Ransley #228: as I suspected, the colleague also doesn’t believe that the data in Lewis et al. is good enough to draw that kind of conclusions. He also notes the hydro-isostatic issue you refer to.

    I looked at your Haworth et al. link, and note that they actually have no data from the Torres Strait area, where the continental shelf gets very broad and where a key piece of Lewis evidence is from… so even if this paper is right (on which I offer no opinion), is doesn’t seem to be very relevant for Lewis et al.

  31. 231
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    Baker, R.G.V., Haworth, R.J. and Flood, P.G. 2005. An oscillating Holocene sea-level?
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