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Global warming: Sea levels could rise for centuries to come

If sea levels rose to where they were during the Last Interglacial Period, large parts of the Gulf of Mexico would be under water (red areas), including half of Florida and several Caribbean islands. Credit: Jeremy Weiss, Department of Geosciences, The University of Arizona.

Strong warning on climate threshold from University of Arizona researchers

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — Ice sheets in the Arctic and Antarctic will probably keep melting, and sea levels will keep rising for a long time — even if greenhouse gas emissions are curbed in the near future, according to a University of Arizona-led team of researchers who studied the history of rising sea levels during the last interglacial period.

“This study marks the strongest case yet made that humans, by warming the atmosphere and oceans, are pushing the Earth’s climate toward the threshold where we will likely be committed to four to six or even more meters of sea level rise in coming centuries,” said Jonathan Overpeck, co-director of the University of Arizona’s Institute of the Environment.

Most climate scientists agree that, as the world’s climate becomes warmer due to increased greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, sea levels will rise by up to three feet by the end of this century.

But researchers have grappled with the question of how much of that increase will be due to ice sheets melting as opposed to the oceans’ 332 million cubic miles of water increasing in volume as they warm up?

For the study, UA team members analyzed paleoceanic records of global distribution of sea surface temperatures of the warmest 5,000-year period during the Last Interglacial, a warm period that lasted from 130,000 to 120,000 years ago.

The researchers then compared the data to results of computer-based climate models simulating ocean temperatures during a 200-year snapshot, as if taken 125,000 years ago, and calculating the contributions from thermal expansion of sea water.

The team found that thermal expansion could have contributed no more than 40 centimeters – less than 1.5 feet – to the rising sea levels during that time, which exceeded today’s level up to eight meters or 26 feet.

At the same time, the paleoclimate data revealed average ocean temperatures that were only about 0.7 degrees Celsius, or 1.3 degrees Fahrenheit, above those of today.

“This means that even small amounts of warming may have committed us to more ice sheet melting than we previously thought. The temperature during that time of high sea levels wasn’t that much warmer than it is today,” said Nicholas McKay, a doctoral student at the UA’s department of geosciences and the paper’s lead author.

McKay pointed out that even if ocean levels rose to similar heights as during the Last Interglacial, they would do so at a rate of up to three feet per century.

“Even though the oceans are absorbing a good deal of the total global warming, the atmosphere is warming faster than the oceans,” McKay added. “Moreover, ocean warming is lagging behind the warming of the atmosphere. The melting of large polar ice sheets lags even farther behind.”

“As a result, even if we stopped greenhouse gas emissions right now, the Earth would keep warming, the oceans would keep warming, the ice sheets would keep shrinking, and sea levels would keep rising for a long time,” he explained.

They are absorbing most of that heat, but they lag behind. Especially the large ice sheets are not in equilibrium with global climate,” McKay added. “

“Unless we dramatically curb global warming, we are in for centuries of sea level rise at a rate of up to three feet per century, with the bulk of the water coming from the melting of the great polar ice sheets – both the Greenland and Antarctic Ice Sheets,” Overpeck said.

According to the authors, the new results imply that 4.1 to 5.8 meters, or 13.5 to 19 feet, of sea level rise during the Last Interglacial period was derived from the Antarctic Ice Sheet. That suggests that both the Antarctic and Greenland Ice Sheets may be more sensitive to warming temperatures than widely thought.

Evidence for elevated sea levels is scattered all around the globe, he added. On Barbados and the Bahamas, for example, notches cut by waves into the rock six or more meters above the present shoreline have been dated to being 125,000 years old.

“Based on previous studies, we know that the sea level during the Last Interglacial was up to 8.5 meters higher than today,” McKay explained.

“We already knew that the vast majority came from the melting of the large ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica, but how much could the expansion of seawater have added to that?”

Given that sea surface temperatures were about 0.7 degrees warmer than today, the team calculated that even if the warmer temperatures reached all the way down to 2,000 meters depth – more than 6,500 feet, which is highly unlikely – expansion would have accounted for no more than 40 centimeters, less than a foot and a half.

“That means almost all of the substantial sea level rise in the Last Interglacial must have come from the large ice sheets, with only a small contribution from melted mountain glaciers and small ice caps,” McKay said. “The message is that the last time glaciers and ice sheets melted, sea levels rose by more than eight meters. Much of the world’s population lives relatively close to sea level. This is going to have huge impacts, especially on poor countries,” he added.

“If you live a meter above sea level, it’s irrelevant what causes the rise. Whether sea levels are rising for natural reasons or for anthropogenic reasons, you’re still going to be under water sooner or later.”

If sea levels rose to where they were during the Last Interglacial Period, large parts of the Gulf of Mexico would be under water (red areas), including half of Florida and several Caribbean islands.
Credit: Jeremy Weiss, Department of Geosciences, The University of Arizona.

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4 Responses

  1. Editor’s note: Headline: repl. “could” w/ “will”

  2. Sea levels have been rising for the past 20,000 years, though slower in recent years. Get used to it – it’s nothing new.

  3. Great to see this explanation. It is the first time that I can recall seeing the forecast of centuries of sea level rise outside the scientific press. I am quite familiar with the subject just having spent two years writing a book about sea level rise and the coastal impacts–not yet published.(You’re safe up there in Summit County.) Your readers may find the 5 illustrations on my web site useful to understand why this will happen over centuries, and to get an idea of the magnitude.

  4. The knowledge from this study is nice to add to the scientific collection but it’s useless for forecasting. Using 120,000 year old data that is very inexact to make sea level and temperature guesses when we are talking about inches and tenths of a degree is an exercise in futility. This is the kind of science that theoretical researchers do that operational forecasters such as myself scoff at. It’s not that we don’t believe in global warming, its just that we don’t have any faith in the forecasting methodologies.

    Sea level has risen an enormous amount (75 feet ??) in 10,000 years. Remember that the first Americans immigrated by foot from Asia. Right now, the sea level is rising about an inch every 12 years. This is faster that the inch/16 years rate before human induced climate change kicked in, but it’s just not very scary.

    BTW, humans have thrived pretty well in the last 10,000 years since the earth started warming and sea level started rising.

    The atmosphere is complicated. We need to be careful with it and watch what we are doing but despite what you’ve read, actual changes so far have been tiny.

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