Sea level versus temperature


The previous post featured some graphs of changes in historical sea level. Obviously, sea level depends on temperature (due to thermal expansion of water and due to melting of glaciers and ice sheets). Let’s see how the relation between sea level and temperature has been over the Earth’ past. An often seen figure is the one from Archer (2006):

Future projections of sea level rise are much lower than what this graphs seems to suggest, based on the past. There are a few reasons for this:

These values refer to situations where sea level could be assumed to be close to equilibrium with respect to temperature, a situation we’re very far removed from at the moment, and that takes very long (milennia) to achieve. Also, past periods become worse as climate analogues for the future the farther in time they’re from. E.g. during the Eocene the continental configuration was different from today, which has implications for climate.

The Eemian period (the last Interglacial, 125,000 years ago) is probably a more useful analogue for the future. Global average temperature was about 2 degrees higher than now, whereas sea level was 4-6 metres higher than now (“with individual maxima up to +7 or +9m“). However, Rahmstorf pointed out that there’s also a …

problem here: this is forced by orbital changes, i.e. highly regional and seasonal insolation anomalies, not a global mean forcing.

Perfect analogies don’t exist. But all timeperiods from the past point to a very strong dependence of eventual sea level to the earth’ temperature. I wrote about this before, with a home-made figure of sea level versus temperature, including the Eemian.

Grinsted made another graph of sea level versus global average temperature, based on the analysis by Rohling (2009):

Rohling et al based their analysis on data from the past 5 glacial cycles (covering half a million years), to which they fitted an exponential (their figure 2b, reproduced as the thick blue line above, here scaled to global average temperatures. Values in red are ‘recent’ sea level values and a sea level projection for 2100). Grinsted provides the following explanation for this relation being sub-linear:

During glacials where ice volume was large the sea level response to a [change in temperature] was also large. In interglacials, with much less ice volume, the sea level response is much smaller.

Based on Rohling’s data, he concludes that in a warming climate, equilibrium sea level rise would be 6-10 m/degC of global average temperature change. That’s a helluva lot more than projections for the next 100 years suggest (due to long equilibration timescales), though less than the 20 m/degC from Archer’s figure. That’s good news I guess, though as the saying goes: “When it’s bad, it’s really bad. When it’s good, it’s still pretty bad”.

Quoting myself:

We know relatively little about dynamical processes that influence the breaking up and melting of land ice. But apparently large changes in sea level are possible if the temperature remains long enough above (or below) a certain value. The examples from the past may give a sense of what order of magnitude sea level rise we could eventually expect for a given temperature increase. The rate of sea level rise is the most uncertain. Most scientific literature concludes that sea level rise won’t be more than one or at most two meters by 2100 (but it will continue to rise thereafter). That is quite a strong increase for large parts of the world to adapt to, and uncertainty in the rate and level of the rise is not really comforting. The examples from the past are even less so.


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10 Responses to “Sea level versus temperature”

  1. Paul Kelly Says:

    The new year brings the opportunity to lay aside academics in favor of practical applications.

  2. Lennart van der Linde Says:

    Bart, what do you make of the new draft paper by Hansen & Sato:

    Click to access 20110118_MilankovicPaper.pdf

    They suggest the Eemian was not 2, but only 1 degree C warmer than now, and that polar amplification was larger than presently assumed. They fear that under BAU non-linear disintegration may lead to a big acceleration in sea level rise even this century, possibly up to 1 meter per decade by 2100, due to the much larger forcing than during the Eemian.

  3. Neven Says:

    Greenland ice sheet saw record melt in 2010

  4. MapleLeaf Says:

    One can only hope that they are wrong….this is not cheering news.

    I’m surprised that the paper by Rohling et al. has not received more attention.

  5. Thehaymarketbomber Says:

    Not exactly difficult to put a straight line through those points, is it?

  6. Ricki of Australia Says:

    A great little comparison. It gives one some perspective. I think the current projectiosn are too low.

    So much depends on the tipping points and how we are increasing forcing much faster than would normally be the case. this means the outlook is very uncertain, but in my view all on the up side of the current projections. We need to watch Antarctica much more closely than we are at present.

  7. Based On | Says:

    […] based on the analysis by […]

  8. rob Says:

    you say (in your last non quoting paragraph) that archer’s figure predicts a sea level rise of 20 m/degC, yet based the 2100 estimate from that figure, the sea level rise would be 1m/ 3 degC which = .333m/degC

    What is your logic behind the 20m/degC claim?

    otherwise very good article.

  9. Bart Says:


    20m/degC is the slope obtained from various periods that sea level can be assumed to be near equilibrium with temperature (dark blue points in Archer’s graph). The projection for 2100 (amounting to ~0.3m/degC) is much lower than this equilibrium response, because it takes a long time to reach this equilibrium.

  10. bebe de 1 ano desenvolvimento Says:

    website oficial

    Sea level versus temperature | My view on climate change

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