Is Sea-Level Rise Accelerating?

If one subtracts out the non-climatic sea level change due to water stored in artificial reservoirs on land, as we did in Vermeer & Rahmstorf (2009), then the agreement between the acceleration curve predicted from global temperature with the actually observed curve is even better (graph below). Thus, the 1930s acceleration minimum pointed out by Houston & Dean supports our approach and projections rather than challenging them.

Figure 2. The same as Figure 1, but here the sea-level data are corrected for water storage in artificial reservoirs (Chao, Wu, and Li, 2008).

Regarding our projections of future sea level rise, Houston & Dean write:

it is not clear that the acceleration necessary to achieve these comparatively large projected rises in mean sea level over the course of the 21st century is evident in tide-gauge records.

That is a puzzling statement. Why would the acceleration we expect only for the 21st Century already show up in tide gauge records of the 20th? Since we expect a temperature rise to cause an acceleration of sea level rise, the acceleration in the 20th Century (which has seen only 0.7 ºC of global warming) must obviously be much smaller than that expected for the 21st Century, for scenarios of a many times greater warming.

Further issues raised by Houston & Dean

Houston and Dean raise a number of further points (beyond the Church & White global data set) on which we just cite the brief summary statements and refer the readers to our journal comment for more detail:

  • Many U.S. tide gauges show a deceleration; since 1930, most of them do.

However, again, 1930 is a special choice, and U.S. tide gauges only provide a regional signal, not a global one.

  • The authors’ extension of the Douglas (1992) sea-level compilation shows a sea-level deceleration for 1905–2010.

But this data set is not a properly area-weighted global average but is instead highly biased to the Northern Hemisphere. It is known that the twentieth-century acceleration is largely found in the Southern Hemisphere (Merrifield, Merrifield, and Mitchum, 2009), and the only two Southern Hemisphere groups in the extended Douglas data set indeed show acceleration.

  • Decadal trends in tide gauge compilations show large variations over the full record, and the most recent decadal trends are not unusual.

However, these variations in decadal tide gauge trends are not a climate signal but rather are dominated by sampling noise due to the inadequate number of tide gauges.

  • The satellite altimeter record shows a slight deceleration since 1993.

But this time interval is far too short to draw any conclusions.

In our comment we conclude:

None of this supports a lack of acceleration in global sea-level rise, as compared to what is expected from global warming. Outside a few starting years around 1930, global sea-level reconstructions robustly show a modern acceleration of sea-level rise in conjunction with global warming.

For the evidence, just have a look at some of the references listed below.

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