Progress has been made in recent years in understanding the observed past sea-level rise. As a result, process-based projections of future sea-level rise have become dramatically higher and are now closer to semi-empirical projections. However, process-based models still underestimate past sea-level rise, and they still project a smaller rise than semi-empirical models.
Sea-level projections were probably the most controversial aspect of the 4th IPCC report, published in 2007. As an author of the paleoclimate chapter, I was involved in some of the sea-level discussions during preparation of the report, but I was not part of the writing team for the projections. At the core of the controversy were the IPCC-projections which are based on process models (i.e. models that aim to simulate individual processes like thermal expansion or glacier melt). Many scientists felt that these models were not mature and understated the sea-level rise to be expected in future, and the IPCC report itself documented the fact that the models seriously underestimated past sea-level rise. (See our in-depth discussion published after the 4th IPCC report appeared.) That was confirmed again with the most recent data in Rahmstorf et al. 2012.
S. Rahmstorf, G. Foster, and A. Cazenave, "Comparing climate projections to observations up to 2011", Environ. Res. Lett., vol. 7, pp. 044035, 2012. http://dx.doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/7/4/044035
… if your data do not look like a quadratic!
This is a post about global sea-level rise, but I put that message up front so that you’ve got it even if you don’t read any further.
The reputable climate-statistics blogger Tamino, who is a professional statistician in real life and has published a couple of posts on this topic, puts it bluntly:
Fitting a quadratic to test for change in the rate of sea-level rise is a fool’s errand.
I’d like to explain why, with the help of a simple example. Imagine your rate of sea-level rise changes over 100 years in the following way:
I was reading a sign high on the wall behind the bar:
‘Only genuine pre-war British and American whiskeys served here’
I was trying to count how many lies could be found in those nine words, and had reached four, with promise of more …”
Dashiell Hammett, “The Golden Horseshoe”
Google News occasionally throws up some obscure postings that I would never otherwise come across. A recent example was a letter to an editor of a Scottish newspaper (not my usual reading material) declaring that “Climate change is not man-made”. The letter itself is uninteresting – a basic confusion between weather and climate seguing into a NIMBY-ish rant about windmills. Ho hum.
However, in one of the comments from a “Dr John Cameron, St Andrews” (posted 9/Oct/2012), there was this unrelated pseudo-factoid:
As regards the catastrophic sea level rise in the Pacific, it became obvious some 20 years ago that results from island tide gauges did not support computer predictions. Scientists from Flinders University in Adelaide set up new, modern, tide-gauges in 12 Pacific islands to test whether there was in fact any evidence of sinking. Recently the whole project was abandoned as there had been no sign whatsoever of a change in sea level at any of the 12 islands for the past 16 years.
Now this is specific enough to probably actually refer to something real, but doesn’t pass the sniff test for something that might actually be true. Scientists don’t set up monitoring stations only to get the answer they want and then stop monitoring if it doesn’t happen. This only happens in the fevered imaginations of conspiracy theorists. So I was intrigued enough to investigate what this actually referred to…
Guest commentary by Sarah Feakins
Our recent study in Nature Geoscience reconstructed conditions at the Antarctic coast during a warm period of Earth’s history. Today the Ross Sea has an ice shelf and the continent is ice covered; but we found the Antarctic coast was covered with tundra vegetation for some periods between 20 million and 15.5 million years ago. These findings are based on the isotopic composition of plant leaf waxes in marine sediments.
That temperatures were warm at that time was not a huge surprise; surprising, was how much warmer things were – up to 11ºC (20ºF) warmer at the Antarctic coast! We expected to see polar amplification, i.e. greater changes towards the poles as the planet warms. This study found those coastal temperatures to be as warm as 7ºC or 45ºF during the summer months. This is a surprise because conventional wisdom has tended to think of Antarctica being getting progressively colder since ice sheets first appeared on Antarctica 34 million years ago (but see Ruddiman (2010) for a good discussion of some of the puzzles).
S.J. Feakins, S. Warny, and J. Lee, "Hydrologic cycling over Antarctica during the middle Miocene warming", Nature Geosci, vol. 5, pp. 557-560, 2012. http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/NGEO1498
W.F. Ruddiman, "A Paleoclimatic Enigma?", Science, vol. 328, pp. 838-839, 2010. http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.1188292
The extensive salt marshes on the Outer Banks of Carolina offer ideal conditions for unravelling the mysteries of sea level change during past centuries. Here is a short report from our field work there – plus some comments on strange North Carolina politics as well as two related new papers published today in Nature Climate Change.
The Outer Banks of Carolina are particularly vulnerable to coastal erosion and sea-level rise, partly because the land is subsiding and the banks are naturally moving landward. On the ocean front, land is continually being lost.
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