What makes sea-level rise?

Are the new numbers realistic? I and many colleagues I spoke to have serious doubts. It is a model result which is in stark contradiction to data-based estimates. The simulation is based on a simple assumption: first the total water demand was estimated, second the availability of near-surface water, and then the shortfall was assumed to be completely supplied by unlimited use of fossil water. The realism of this assumption is debatable – to me it seems to run a risk of greatly overestimating the withdrawal of fossil water.

The uncertainties also need to be discussed: the fossil water withdrawal is estimated by subtracting two large, uncertain numbers. Yet there is no proper uncertainty analysis. Instead, a single number with three significant digits is presented (359 km3 per year for 1950-2000). That is almost five times the rate of 82 ± 22 km3 per year computed by Konikow (2011) for 1961-2008, based on data for groundwater usage and actual observations of water-level declines in aquifers being depleted. Leonard Konikow, a hydrologist with the US Geological Survey, says about the huge amount of groundwater depletion simulated by Pokhrel: “Groundwater hydrologists would have noticed if such a large volume of water were ‘missing’”.

A bit dubious is also the fact that for the largely overlapping period 1950-2000 Pokhrel et al. find that less than 20% of sea level rise is due to land water storage, not 42% as for 1961-2003. Yadu Pokhrel responded to my query that this is due to a large short-term increase in the landwater contribution to sea level between 2000 and 2003, combined with the fact that their rates are computed simply from the difference between the end points (2003 minus 1961). 2003 happened to be a drought year with little water stored on land. Church et al. compute their budgets based on linear trends, which is more robust by using all data points and not just the end points.

Pokhrel et al. don’t even mention the Church et al. paper (although that was published before their paper was submitted). They relate their discussion to the old IPCC finding of “missing sea level rise”, claiming to now have found the source of this missing water. The media largely followed this story line.

Impact on future projections

If the Pokhrel numbers were right, what would this mean for the future? There are two methods to estimate future sea level rise: complex process-based models, which try to compute all individual contributions (e.g. glacier melt) under changing climate conditions, and semi-empirical models, which exploit the observed relationship between global temperature and sea level and are calibrated with past data (see my article Modeling sea level rise at Nature Education). Both have their problems and limitations, and currently I don’t think anyone can seriously claim to know which will turn out to be closer to the truth.

Fig. 2. Change in sea level in mm per year due to the contribution of groundwater pumping (black curves – estimated based on data by Konikow 2011 and Wada et al. 2010) and water storage in artificial reservoirs (blue – this contribution is negative, i.e. lowers sea level). From Rahmstorf et al. (2011).

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