What makes sea-level rise?

Last week the science community was shocked by the claim that 42% of the sea-level rise of the past decades is due to groundwater pumping for irrigation purposes. What could this mean for the future – and is it true?

The causes of global sea level rise can be roughly split into three categories: (1) thermal expansion of sea water as it warms up, (2) melting of land ice and (3) changes in the amount of water stored on land. There are independent estimates for these contributions, and obviously an important question is whether their sum is consistent with the total sea level rise actually observed.

foto (c) Stefan Rahmstorf 2012

In the last IPCC report (2007), the time period 1961-2003 was analysed in some detail, and a problem was found: the individual contributions summed up to less than the observed rise – albeit with rather large uncertainties in the estimates. In the years since then, much research effort has been devoted to better quantify all contributions. For the last decade there is also improved observation systems, e.g. the GRACE satellite mission and thousands of autonomous ARGO floats monitoring globally the warming ocean.

Last year Church et al. (2011) provided a new sea-level budget analysis (see Fig. 1). For the period 1972-2008 the budget is closed, with a total rise of about 7 cm. A bit over half of that is due to melting land ice, and a bit less than half due to thermal expansion. Land water storage makes a small negative contribution, because the water stored in artificial reservoirs (which lowers sea level) is estimated to be larger than the amount of fossil groundwater pumped up for irrigation (which mostly ends up in the sea). Also for the shorter recent period 1993-2008 (for which we have satellite measurements of global sea level rise, found to be about 3 mm per year) John Church and colleagues successfully closed the sea level budget. Granted, the uncertainties in the estimates are still significant so the issue cannot be considered completely resolved. Nevertheless, the Church et al. paper defines the current state of the art against which all further studies need to measure up.

Fig. 1. Sea level rise for 1961-2008. On the left the individual contributions are shown, on the right the sum of these contributions (red) is compared to the measured rise (black). Graph from Church et al. (2011)

The groundwater shock

On May 20, Nature Geoscience published a Japanese model simulation of global land water storage (Pokhrel et al. 2012), which surprised the expert community with the conclusion that 42% of sea level rise (about 3 out of 8 cm) over the period 1961-2003 is due to reduced land water storage. In contrast to earlier studies, reservoir storage was assumed to be smaller, but mainly groundwater pumping was calculated to be several times larger.

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