There’s no doubt that the average global sea level has been increasing ever since the world started to warm after the Little Ice Age ended around 1850. But there’s no reliable scientific evidence that the rate of rise is accelerating.
By far the most publicized phenomenon cited as evidence for human-induced climate change is rising sea levels, with the media regularly trumpeting the latest prediction of the oceans flooding or submerging cities in the decades to come. Nothing instills as much fear in low-lying coastal communities as the prospect of losing one’s dwelling to a hurricane storm surge or even slowly encroaching seawater. Island nations such as the Maldives in the Indian Ocean and Tuvalu in the Pacific are convinced their tropical paradises are about to disappear beneath the waves.
There’s no doubt that the average global sea level has been increasing ever since the world started to warm after the Little Ice Age ended around 1850. But there’s no reliable scientific evidence that the rate of rise is accelerating, or that the rise is associated with any human contribution to global warming.
A comprehensive 2018 report on sea level and climate change by Judith Curry, a respected climate scientist and global warming skeptic, emphasizes the complexity of both measuring and trying to understand recent sea level rise. Because of the switch in 1993 from tide gauges to satellite altimetry as the principal method of measurement, the precise magnitude of sea level rise as well as projections for the future are uncertain.
According to both Curry and theUN’s IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), the global rate of sea level rise from 1901 to 2010 was about 1.7 mm (about 1/16th of an inch) per year, increasing after 1993 to 3.2 mm per year, almost double the previous rate – though this estimate is considered too high bysome experts. But, while the sudden jump may seem surprising and indicative of acceleration, the fact is that the globally averaged sea level fluctuates considerably over time. This is illustrated in the IPCC’s figure below, which shows estimates from tide gauge data of the rate of rise from 1900 to 1993.
It’s clear that the rate of rise was much higher than its 20th century average during the 30 years from 1920 to 1950, and much lower than the average from 1910 to 1920 and again from 1955 to 1980. Strong regional differences exist too. Actual rates of sea level rise range from negative in Stockholm, corresponding to a falling sea level, as that region continues to rebound after melting of the last ice age’s heavy ice sheet, to positive rates three times higher than average in the western Pacific Ocean.