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Sea level rise: The New York Times got the story

Filed under: — stefan @ 15 November 2010

Yesterday, the New York Times ran an excellent cover story on sea level rise, together with two full pages inside the paper, fancy graphs and great photographs (online version here). The author, Justin Gillis, researched the piece for months, visited Greenland and talked to most of the leading scientists in the field – many of which he cites in the article. The science presented is correct and up-to-date and the story is a gripping read. That’s how science journalism should be!

What is going on in Greenland? (c) The New York Times.

In the area of sea level rise, science has moved along quite a bit since the last IPCC report was published in 2007 (see for example my commentary at Nature together with that of Jason Lowe and Jonathan Gregory), and Gillis shows that most of the experts now assume a considerably higher rise until 2100 than IPCC: about one meter, potentially even more. I also had to change my position on this – only a few years ago I assumed lower values, too (see for example our book Our Threatened Oceans). By now, several US states use our projections for coastal planning (e.g. California, North Carolina) and Obama’s science adviser John Holdren shows them in his presentations.

For those interested in the projections in metric units and broken down for emission scenarios, please consult the original version. (c) The New York Times

Over the years, I’ve worked with dozens of journalists that reported on our work, but seldom was the cooperation so professional and the result so convincing as with Gillis. It is an example for how professional journalism can prove its advantage over the growing competition by blogs – few bloggers could afford such in-depth research to give a broad overview of the state-of-the-art of a particular scientific issue. This is on a completely different level than the standard quickly-cobbled-together pieces based on a press release by Science or Nature, which are so hilariously spoofed by Martin Robbins (who made me laugh out loud).

Naturally, every journalist would love to do a big story like Gillis – it’s up to the editors to grant them time and travel expenses for such a project, and then two pages of the paper. Kudos to the New York Times for making this possible even in times of tight budgets!

231 Responses to “Sea level rise: The New York Times got the story”

  1. 1
    Robin D Johnson says:

    Indeed. I started to read the article with the usual trepidation afforded to “newspaper science”. I was very happily surprised by the quality and depth. I became convinced some time ago that we have already passed the point of ruin – but I keep hoping I’m wrong and that we still have time to change course. Hopefully, more stuff like this will get folks motivated to talk reasonably with their neighbors and get a sufficient majority moving in the right direction.

  2. 2
    John E. Pearson says:

    Thanks for calling my attention to that interesting piece which I would have otherwise missed. The article focused on the threat to the US that a 3′ rise in sea level would bring. What would such a rise mean for China? It seems likely it would displace at least 100 million Chinese? ?

  3. 3
    Chris Colose says:

    I read this yesterday after someone forwarded it to me…I was quite pleased and surprised. This sets a useful standard for quality scientific journalism

  4. 4
    JCH says:

    Very much all about what I have been reading lately, but I am disappointed they did not mention Galveston’s aging seawall and the damages inflicted on the city by Hurricane Ike.

    Waves visiting the memorial, located on top of the 1904 (plus later additions) seawall, to victims of the 1900 flood:

  5. 5
    Dan H. says:

    Your statement that most experts expect a meter sea level rise is not supported in the article. While Gillis says that many think this could happen, he admits that our understanding of glacier dynamics is too primative to make sound predictions. Gillis also included those, Christi, who contend that the changes in Greenland may not be any different than those observed in the early 20th century. While a very nice scientific article for the NY Times and the general public, it did not provide any new data or research.

    [Response: Perhaps you would care to tell us what ‘new data or research’ that Christy has brought to this issue? His contentions, in the light of plenty of evidence to the contrary, do not hold much weight. Check out the retreat of the Jakobshavn glacier for instance. It has retreated tremendously past any points from the 1930s. – gavin]

  6. 6
    William P says:

    While sea level rise is important, it may be food crop destruction that will blindside us.

    Regarding crop destruction by heat, we don’t need much science to see what is happening before our eyes. Russia’s loss of 25% of their wheat crop this year is but one example. Africa has been suffering crop loss from drought and heat for decades. The 2003 heat wave in Europe, while not billed as crop destruction event, did kill 33,000 humans.

    Sea level rise may get more attention because it is something we can calculate with some precision. Crop loss due to extended heat episodes is less subject to prediction.

    But having food shortages, especially increasingly severe ones, could be the event that finally shuts down the Deniers for good and gets humanity focused on what many who have studied global warming have trying to tell us. This is deadly serious.

  7. 7
    John Atkeison says:

    Can someone explain to me why it is a virtue that the NYT focuses on the three foot estimate of rise when their graph shows it to be way at the bottom of the range?

    [Response: Because the NYT (and many other papers and commenters) have downplayed 3 – foot rise as a position held only by Stefan! The fact is that his projections are now mainstream, even among those who think that only the ‘low end’ scenarios are likely (I happen to be one of those, but the ‘low end’ is now pretty high).–eric]

  8. 8
    John E. Pearson says:

    Gavin’s response to 5 was WAY too kind. Post 5 is idiotic in the extreme. The poster complained that there wasn’t new data or research in a newspaper article!!! To the best of my knowledge Christy has no particular expertise in glaciology.

  9. 9
    JCH says:

    “Can someone explain to me why it is a virtue that the NYT focuses on the three foot estimate of rise when their graph shows it to be way at the bottom of the range? …”

    I think what I read on a scientist’s website is 1.14 meters is most likely: 3′ 9″, which may be what the graphic used.

    Others may have a different opinion.

  10. 10
    Sou says:

    This was an excellent article.

    People like Dan H might prefer to go with Christie because Christie attempts to insert doubt. Going by the remainder of the article, my guess is Gillis was pressured to provide ‘balance’. Not finding an oceanographer or glaciologist to dispute the fact that sea levels will most likely rise a lot (perhaps even if we act more quickly to curb emissions), he had to go to the sole person who reliably sows doubt and is perfectly willing to comment on matters outside his experience and knowledge.

    I really like how Gillis describes the difficulty of and risks entailed in researching changes in the earth’s ice. I suspect some people think scientific research is easy and that it’s all in a book at the library!

    Another major point is that the USA is no longer able to get the necessary funding (or prioritise it) for satellites. With the US economy likely to continue to wane, it is definitely time there was an international effort to fund and send up satellites. This issue affects the whole world. The whole world has to learn to work together on this and stop relying on the USA to do all the biggest jobs. We need joint efforts by the USA, Asia-Pacific and Europe and any other nation who wants to be in on it. Maybe helped along by large corporations and private wealth-holders. This is the whole earth we are talking about.

    (My only very minor gripe is the use of archaic measures only used in the USA. Because NY Times is read by people all around the world, it would be an idea to use international measures, or at the very least, specify that he is using the Fahrenheit scale when referring to temperature.)

  11. 11
    David B. Benson says:

    Now maybe TNYT will do a similar article on a much more (potentially) serious problem:
    \This is very alarming because if the drying is anything resembling Figure 11, a very large population will be severely affected in the coming decades over the whole United States, southern Europe, Southeast Asia, Brazil, Chile, Australia, and most of Africa.\

    No rain, no food.

  12. 12
    Kent Hundley says:

    The poster in #5 actually misses the entire point of the analysis: even taking his statement that we don’t completely understand glacial dynamics at face value, the point is that all the data we actually have indicates a very steep rise in sea level. That’s the data we have, we have nothing to the contrary and we must act upon the data we have.

    Yes, the expected sea level rise _might_ be wrong, glaciers _could_ suddenly stop retreating and the temperature rise _could_ suddenly stop. Those are all within the limits of the possible, but there is absolutely no reason whatsoever for anyone to think that any of that _will_ occur. We live in a universe governed by probability. We have to act on what the evidence indicates is the most likely set of events to occur, not wait until we have absolute metaphysical certainty, a certainty that by the way we will never achieve.

    Analogy: You are in the mall shopping when a man comes in holding a semi-automatic pistol and he starts shooting people, seemingly at random. He shoots and shoot and shoots as bodies fall all around him until he gets right up in front of you. He points the gun right at your face. At that moment, the gun _might_ be empty, he _might_ decide not to shoot you after all, an unseen police sniper _might_ take him out for you, but it would be suicide to _expect_ that any of that is going to occur, and you better damn well take some action or your probably going to die.

  13. 13
    BillS says:

    Re: #2
    You might get some idea of what such a sea level rise means for China from these maps provided by the Univ. of Arizona. The higher resolution maps are for the US and its territories but all are worth a look.

  14. 14
    Mark J. Fiore says:

    I occasionally post here.I’m an amateur who follows most all global warming news since 1987, in depth.Also graduate from Harvard, 1982, and Boston College Law School. 1987. Good article.My e mail is firmly believe that Hansen is correct.Also, see the work of Peter Ward.1000 ppm co2 is probable by year 2100 -2150, or sooner.The sea level rise, with business as usual, is locked in at 100 feet minimum.End of story.

    [Response: Yes, but not on a timescale most of us, even the most forward thinking ones, worry about very much.–eric]

  15. 15

    It is wise to revise rates of sea level rise. The NYT article lead me to a recent video lecture by Dr. Jerry X. Mitrovica – provided some background, archeology, data measurement that grounded the issue well.
    And now note the added complexity of predicting regionally.

  16. 16
    dan bloom says:

    all this just confirms what i have been saying here for two years, we will need polar cities for survivors of AGW climate chaos in the future, my timeline is 2500 AD, but others say sooner: agree now? o ye who earlier tried to ban me from posting here?

  17. 17
    Jim Eager says:

    BillS @13, thanks for the link to the UofA map page. I just looked at the extent of inundation at 1 meter and 2 meter of rise for Bangladesh and the Mekong delta. Also check the coast of Sumatra and Irian Jaya.

  18. 18
    Rob Huber says:

    When I look at, it appears to me that +/- 1 or 2 meters in sea level is within the baseline noise for the past several thousand years. I’ve never understood why recent (i.e. the last 100 years) sea level rise is viewed as significant in light of this.

    Sea level seems pretty flat for the last 6000 years, but there is a fair amount of noise in the graph. What amount of rise/fall would be considered insignificant due to noise?

  19. 19
    SWDoughty says:

    Here is a much more accessible sea level change mapping system to use. Just avoid the stupid ads.

  20. 20
    David B. Benson says:

    Rob Huber @18 — Not much infrastructure close to sea level until rather recently, what?

  21. 21
    dan bloom says:

    correction: overactive keyboard re polar cities:

    that is why they call me “James Lovelock’s Accidental Student

  22. 22
    JCH says:

    I’m going to defend Dan H. a bit. When the IPCC report came out there was a lot of discussion here about nonlinear melting. Then there was an article about Rahmstorf 2007, and there was some grumbling about how low that prediction was. The emphasis was that prediction was based upon a linear relationship between the temperature of the atmosphere and melting that replicated past sea level, and was used to make the prediction. The impression I got at the time was nonlinear melting was still unpredictable and unquantifiable and was not used in making the prediction, but some commenters still talked as though they expected a great deal of it; as in, in addition.

    Later Mauri Pelto wrote an article about Greenland ice, and he explained a great deal about how well Greenland can defend its ice inventory, which threw some cold water on expectations of excessively rampant nonlinear melting.

    In 2009 the Rahmstorf estimate was raised, but I think they still referred to their approach as remaining linear.

    So in the article, there appear to be a lot of scientists who are looking at nonlinear melting up close and personal, at least in part, and thinking 3 feet.

    So I know I missing something, because i’m uncertain whether or not we’re talking the exact same 3 feet.

  23. 23
    ImranCan says:

    What I don;t understand is, if sea level rise is predicetd to be accelerating, why has the rate of rise been reducing over the last 10 years ?

    [Response: Those are very short term statistics you are looking at. It can not be shown to be significant or relevant to the long term picture with such a short record.–eric]

    [Response: Just adding to that: the entire satellite record (starting 1993) is just one data point in the analysis of our paper. Variability on time scales shorter than 15 years or so is in my perspective not linked to global climate change but likely just “noise” – the result of various internal variability mechanisms. Let’s wait another 15 years for the next data point, then we may see something. -stefan]

  24. 24
    Didactylos says:

    Sou: perhaps you have heard of Envisat, ERS-1&2, Cryosat-2, GOCE, SMOS, GOSAT, ADM-Aeolus and EarthCARE?

  25. 25
    Hunt Janin says:

    I’m writing an introductory survey on sea level rise and was getting disappointed that it seems to get so little serious attention in mainstream media. Was therefore most happy to see the NYT story!

  26. 26
    MarkB says:

    My comment:

    My only qualms were a few statements overplaying measurement uncertainty, but overall, a very well-researched thorough science-based article from the mainstream press – a rarity these days.

  27. 27
    sidd says:

    the article mentions icequakes. do these have a different frequency spectrum from groundquakes? ifso can we look at the last century of seismic records in addition to the last two decades ?

  28. 28
    Hank Roberts says:

    > icequakes
    finds among much else, this:

    “The aim of this study was to find a procedure which will effectively discriminate seismic signals from these icequakes …. according to their characteristics: frequency content, duration, azimuth, inclination and magnitude…. this method was capable of distinguishing icequakes and could substantially improve the production of an automated event list.”

  29. 29
    Martin Vermeer says:

    Didactylos #24:

    …and don’t forget contributing to GRACE!

  30. 30
    Laws of Nature says:

    Dear Stefan,

    Re comment in #23:
    “Just adding to that: the entire satellite record (starting 1993) is just one data point in the analysis of our paper. Variability on time scales shorter than 15 years or so is in my perspective not linked to global climate change but likely just “noise” – the result of various internal variability mechanisms. Let’s wait another 15 years for the next data point, then we may see something. -stefan”

    Well, let’s just rephrase the question then . .
    Costal long term measurements and the satellite data point towards a linear trend with about 1foot per century (just extrapolating the black line in the 2nd figure up in the article)
    Cristy points out, that there is no proof, that the acceleration of the melting is ingreasing (scientists cited in the newspaper article seem to say that some glaciers are slowing down again)
    You seem to say yourself, that the data is a bit too sparse for any definite conclusion.
    Can you rule out a change of only about one foot; in other words is it possible, that your non-linear extrapolation shown up there is just a wrong model?

    All the best,

  31. 31
  32. 32
    crusty says:

    Its about time the subject of sea level rise is back, and yes a good article its was. I’ve done some reading about the meltwater period, 20,000 to 10,000 yrs ago and the rate of sea level rise in the main episodes and 5mtrs per 100 yrs occurred. Even though the amount of ice was larger than today the temperature was half of today and the increase to todays temperature rose very rapidly once the extra surface area of water was here.
    Looking at the loss of the summer sea ice in the arctic and that it might not be here in about 10 yrs and will have gone from a reflection of sunlight to an absorber,now a person could quite easily understand this extra heat will speed up the undercutting of land based ice and so rapid rise of sea level this century is very possible. So more than 1 meter of rise could quite easily be on the lower end of the scale. Once the locking pin holding back the most vulnerable ice lets go i think a domino effect will take place and literally shake the other compromised ice into the sea, hence rapid sea level rise will take place once more and place the earth into another epoch unfortunately.

  33. 33
    Gilles says:

    Stefan :”Just adding to that: the entire satellite record (starting 1993) is just one data point in the analysis of our paper. Variability on time scales shorter than 15 years or so is in my perspective not linked to global climate change but likely just “noise” – the result of various internal variability mechanisms. Let’s wait another 15 years for the next data point, then we may see something. -stefan”

    Sorry, Stefan, may be I missed the point, but if the best measurements so far are unable to show any acceleration term, what is the observational evidence for that ? Why do you assume that unknown “internal variability mechanisms” are important at a given (short) timescale, and unimportant at another (long) one? how can you distinguish between a response to a forcing and a spontaneous variability, if you don’t have precise measurements of any of them ?

    [Response: How about you read our paper? It is all described there. -stefan]

  34. 34
    Sou says:

    @Didactylos #24

    Yes, I’m aware there are and have been satellites. As well as my own (limited) understanding, I was going by the article by Gillis, where he wrote:

    Yet the rise of the sea could turn out to be the single most serious effect. While the United States is among the countries at greatest risk, neither it nor any other wealthy country has made tracking and understanding the changes in the ice a strategic national priority.

    The consequence is that researchers lack elementary information. They have been unable even to measure the water temperature near some of the most important ice on the planet, much less to figure out if that water is warming over time. Vital satellites have not been replaced in a timely way, so that American scientists are losing some of their capability to watch the ice from space.

    The missing information makes it impossible for scientists to be sure how serious the situation is.

  35. 35
    Jim Eager says:

    I strongly suggest that those questioning the sea level rise measurements view the Jerry Mitrovica talk “In Search of Lost Time: Ancient Eclipses, Roman Fish Tanks and the Enigma of Global Sea Level Rise” that Richard Pauli linked to @15:

  36. 36
    caerbannog says:

    So Dr. Christy was consulted for his professional opinion about glaciology in the NY Times article….

    I just can’t help but notice what an incredible climate-science “polymath” many journalists seem to think that Dr. Christy is.

    Most mortal climate-scientists have in-depth expertise in very narrow specialties. Glaciologists generally aren’t tree-ring experts; dendrochonologists generally aren’t experts in isotope chemistry, and geochemists are highly unlikely to be atmospheric physics experts. But if you read enough about global-warming in the popular press, you just might get the impression that Dr. Christy is an expert in all of these areas. How does the guy find the time to get any sleep?

  37. 37
    SecularAnimist says:

    It will be easier to evacuate coastal cities after they have been mostly depopulated by drought-driven famine.

  38. 38


    The observational evidence for SLR acceleration comes from comparison with the earlier portions of the 20th century, when rates of SLR were considerably lower. Unfortunately, there was no GRACE back then, but the tide-gauge data, though trickier than you might think to work with, are nevertheless useful.

    This post cites many relevant studies, for those (like Gilles) who would like to investigate further. And the long-term graph illustrates accelerating SLR over the 20th century rather nicely.

  39. 39

    Dan in #5 wrote: “Your statement that most experts expect a meter sea level rise is not supported in the article.”

    Don’t know about the print version, but it’s pretty well-supported, IMO, in the links given in the online version available here. The linked Hanson review alone provides a pretty extensive bibiography.

    The link in plain:

    Even discounting them, I think the statement is supportable; ice dynamics aren’t the only reason for the higher projection–just the biggest “wild card.”

  40. 40
    The Ville says:

    Thanks for the info about the NYT article Stefan.

    I made a point of taking some photos and video of the highest tide of the year at Portsmouth, Hampshire, UK this year.
    It was a roughish day and the sea was a bit choppy. I got soaked by spray from a wave and had to stand on a wall to avoid getting my feet wet on the public footpath. I posted them on my blog:

    The video and photos were taken along the main tourist sea front area, which has a lot more money spent on it for sea defences than other locations around Portsea Island (Portsmouth is on an island and has a population of about 300,000).

    Add a metre or two to current levels and the defences will have to be much more substantial/higher. About half of Portsmouth is below 5 metres above sea level.

  41. 41
    mauri pelto says:

    This article is an excellent example which makes two on Greenland recently. Wow. <a href=""Rolling Stones article by Ben Wallace-Wells was also excellent. The only downside is that some of the graphics are a few years old in the data they present such as the Helheim terminus.

  42. 42
    Didactylos says:

    Sou, CryoSat-1 was lost at launch. The replacement was started immediately, but it takes time to build a satellite. ICESat failed in February. CryoSat-2 was launched in April.

    Yes, it’s not ideal, but failures happen. I think Gillis was being a little nationalistic, or did not do his research on this: the other important environmental satellite to be lost recently is NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCE).

  43. 43
    Adam R. says:

    Aside from Christy’s jejune remarks, this was a refreshing effort from the Times. Too bad the author fell into the false balance trap.

  44. 44
    Chris Dudley says:

    Charles County in Maryland is working on a water resource element to its long term planning. This county is wrapped by the Potomac River and the Brackish/Fresh line is at about the town of Indian Head. From the above graph, we can expect about a foot of sea level rise within the next twenty to twenty five years. How far up river does this shift the brackish/fresh line? Is there software available to calculate this? Already, there are salt water intrusions into fresh aquifers in places in the county ruining existing wells. Who could provide the best information on protecting aquifer flow to keep this from happening further up river? Thanks in advance for the help.

  45. 45
    Dan H. says:

    With regards to “new data,” Ibrahim (#31)posted a link to Greenland temperature measurements and the new GRACE data showing that the glaciers in Greenland are only melting at half the previously expected rate. At the current rate of melting, the contribution from Greenland to the total sea levels by less than 1mm/year.
    Predicting long-term changes base on short-term data is a troubling endeavor engaged in by too many scientists. Yes, sea level could rise by 3 feet by 2100, but the uncertainty in those predictions exceeds the total increase, it is just as likely to be 6 feet as 0.

    [Response: Sorry, but the uncertainty is all on the up-side. – gavin]

    This is similar to Maslowksi projecting the Arctic to be ice-free by 2013 based on short-term measurements.

  46. 46
    beegdawg007 says:

    Lets look at some hard facts…

    There are several problems with this article. First, a quick google of “rising sea level” would take anyone really interested in facts to a Wiki page which shows that, based on 20+ global tide guages, the sea has been rising at a steady rate of 1.8MM/yr since 1900 (less than 8 inches a century). Between 1900 and 1940, only 5% of the total CO2 burned in the past hundreds years was burned. However the rate the seal level has been rising has not changed. In fact, the sea has been rising at this rate for thousands of years. Second, 85% of all glacial ice and 70% of the world’s fresh water is stored (frozen solid and been so for 6 million yeaers) in Antarctica (the south pole). The mean temperature of Antarctica is -56Deg F. A 3 deg change in global temp would actually result in an increase in snow pack in Antarctica because the air coming off the ocean to the land would contain slightly more water vapor. In the past six million years, the Ice Sheet in Antartica has endured at least 50 complete global warming/cooling cycles which come every 100,000 years or so. For Antarctica to melt, global warming would have to be in the range of 10+ Deg C for thousands of years. Also, according to Greenland temp. data, the temp in Greenland is still much cooler than it was when the Vikings arrived there in the 10 century..

    [Response: Very few of your statements are ‘hard facts’. Look up the Thwaites or Pine Island glaciers and then tell me that you can’t get ice sheet changes without +10 deg C temperatures… – gavin]

    [Response: I’m always a little surprised by lay people making sweeping statements like: “In fact, the sea has been rising at this rate for thousands of years.” Think about it: this would mean in the Middle Ages sea level should have been about 1.8 meters lower, in Roman times about 3.6 meters lower… Which clearly contradicts the archeological evidence, as discussed e.g. by IPCC. -stefan]

  47. 47

    #23 ImranCan

    Just some perspective. Take another look at the chart. There is indicated a rate change in the last 4 years, not 10 years. Natural variability factors can be tied to the many oscillations and ocean heat content overturn occurring in the climate system, and these attributions are not fully understood, but the picture is getting more interesting.

    One idea might be that if the rate change is not noise and is in fact signal, it may be a result of lag inertia coming down from the peak of solar cycle 23 and the extended solar minimum, as that lower intensity feeds through the oscillations? Just how do the Schwabe cycles affect natural variation? Interesting questions.

    My point is it’s pretty darn complex stuff. I only wish I have the view and understanding that others here have.

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  48. 48

    It seems to me that sea levels are currently at historic lows. Melting sea ice actually displacing more volume as ice than water. Increasing hungry populations will require more potable water in this same time frame, either by capturing and storing rain or by desalinzation. The latest Chinese water project will create a new man made body of water by diverting 19.5 billion cubic meters of water, that will not contribute to rising sea levels. Right here in Arizona a second aqueduct may deliver water to central Arizona from the Colorado River.


  49. 49
    Clippo says:

    I have been debating these very topics, i.e. sea level rise & the melting of Land ice, particularly Greenland on another obscure political website with, I assume, an AGW denier.
    To support my case, I found the NASA website :-

    However, this still only suggests about 24 Cu miles / year of Greenland ice melt, yet other estimates, say from Wiki, now suggest nearly 6 times that.

    Am I interpeting this correctly? If so, should NASA re-evaluate their website suggestions?

  50. 50
    w kensit says:

    I have reached the point where finding ‘experts’ who have no expertise in the subject, being quoted in an article as the de rigueur balance to the actual experts I move on to something more reality based. Christy is one such. Thus I never read the article. Perhaps in a few days my disgust will die down so I might return to the article. I’m sure I missed a whole lotta revelations by not reading the letters section too.