It is well known that ice shelves on the Antarctic Peninsula have collapsed on several occasions in the last couple of decades, that ice shelves in West Antarctica are thinning rapidly, and that the large outlet glaciers that drain the West Antarctic ice sheet (WAIS) are accelerating. The rapid drainage of the WAIS into the ocean is a major contributor to sea level rise (around 10% of the total, at the moment).
All of these observations match the response, predicted in the late 1970s by glaciologist John Mercer, of the Antarctic to anthropogenic global warming. As such, they are frequently taken as harbingers of greater future sea level rise to come. Are they?
Two papers published this week in Nature Geoscience provide new information that helps to address this question. One of the studies (led by me) says “probably”, while another (Abram et al.) gives a more definitive “yes”. More »
This is Part 2 of my thoughts on the state of sea-level research. Here is Part 1.
A topic that keeps coming up in the literature is the discussion on a (roughly) 60-year cycle in sea level data; a nice recent paper on this is Chambers et al. in GRL (2012). One thing I like about this paper is its careful discussion of the sampling issue of the tide gauges, which means that variability in the tide gauges is not necessarily variability in the true global mean sea level (see Part 1 of this post). I want to add some thoughts on the interpretation of this variability. Consider this graph from my Response to Comments in Science (2007):
Fig. 1: Fifteen-year averages of the global mean temperature (blue, °C, GISS data) and rate of sea level rise (red, cm/year, Church&white data), both detrended.
D.P. Chambers, M.A. Merrifield, and R.S. Nerem, "Is there a 60-year oscillation in global mean sea level?", Geophysical Research Letters, vol. 39, pp. n/a-n/a, 2012. http://dx.doi.org/10.1029/2012GL052885
S. Rahmstorf, "Response to Comments on "A Semi-Empirical Approach to Projecting Future Sea-Level Rise"", Science, vol. 317, pp. 1866d-1866d, 2007. http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.1141283
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…
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