Human action will decide how much sea levels rise

Sea levels are set to rise around the globe. Image: By Luke Moss on Unsplash

Sea levels will go on rising, because of human action. By how much, though, depends on what humans do next.

LONDON, 21 May 2020 – It’s a racing certainty that sea levels everywhere will go on climbing. Unless the world’s nations act to contain global warming, by 2100 the tides around the world will be one metre higher. And by 2300, they could be five metres higher.

Humans will not be able to blame natural causes: if beaches wash away and coastal towns flood, it will be because of deliberate human inaction.

And even if the 195 nations that met in Paris in 2015 and vowed to limit global warming to “well below” a maximum of 2°C by 2100 actually keep their promise, sea levels around the world will almost certainly rise by at least half a metre, as ever warmer oceans expand, and mountain glaciers and polar icecaps continue to melt.

The predicted levels are not new – individual research teams and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have said as much many times – but they represent a second and closer look, by 106 experts, at the forecasts for the future.

The charge of human complicity in sea level rise, too, is not new, but science has a way of continuously re-examining its own conclusions to see if they could be wrong. And the message is: they are not wrong.

“This provides a great deal of hope for the future, as well as strong motivation to act now”

Researchers from Hong Kong, Ireland, the UK, the US and Germany joined scientists from Singapore to consider, once again, what could happen to the world’s oceans under two scenarios: one in which global warming – already at least 1°C higher now than for most of human history – rose by no more than 2°C altogether, and one in which humankind went on burning fossil fuels and destroying tropical rainforests at ever greater rates.

The conclusion? They report in the journal Climate and Atmospheric Science that at the 2°C limit, seas will rise by 0.5 metres by 2100 and two metres by 2300.

If temperatures by 2100 reach 4.5°C, then by the century’s end the tides could reach anywhere between 0.6 and 1.3 metres above present levels. Two centuries on, the high tide mark could be anywhere between 1.7 and 5.6 metres above the present.

And these are the judgments of 106 scientists, each of whom has published at least six peer-reviewed scientific studies of future sea level rise in the last six years.

“We know that the planet will see additional sea level rise in the future. But there are stark differences in the amount of sea level rise experts project for low emissions compared to high emissions,” said one of the scientists, Andra Garner of Rowan University in the US.

Lessons from prehistory

“This provides a great deal of hope for the future, as well as strong motivation to act now to avoid the more severe impacts of rising sea levels.”

Quite separately, researchers in the US report in the journal Science Advances that they too, took a closer look at puzzles posed by past sea level change. Long before humans ever started burning coal, oil and natural gas, the ice caps retreated, and the seas rose.

The scientists reconstructed the history of sea levels and glaciation since the end of the Cretaceous era 60 million or so years ago, and matched them to estimated carbon dioxide levels long before the emergence of any human ancestry.

They concluded that all the changes in the past had natural explanations, but not the changes happening now.

Kenneth Miller of Rutgers University who led the study said: “Although carbon dioxide levels had an important influence on ice-free periods, minor variations in the Earth’s orbit were the dominant factor in terms of ice volume and sea level changes – until modern times.” – Climate News Network