Recent Progress in Understanding and Projecting Regional and Global Mean Sea-Level Change

Peter Clark, John Church, Jonathan Gregory, Tony Payne

Research output: Contribution to journalReview article (Academic Journal)peer-review

19 Citations (Scopus)


Considerable progress has been made in understanding present and future regional and global sea level in the two years since publication of the Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Here we evaluate how the new results affect the AR5’s assessment of (i) historical sea-level rise, including attribution of that rise and implications for the sea-level budget, (ii) projections of the components and of total global mean sea level (GMSL), and (iii) projections of regional variability and emergence of the anthropogenic signal. In each of these cases, new work largely provides additional evidence in support of the AR5 assessment, providing greater confidence in those findings. Recent analyses confirm the 20th century sea-level rise, with some analyses showing a slightly smaller rate before 1990 and some a slightly larger value than reported in the AR5. There is now more evidence of an acceleration in the rate of rise. Ongoing ocean heat uptake and associated thermal expansion have continued since 2000, and are consistent with ocean thermal expansion reported in the AR5. A significant amount of heat is being stored deeper in the water column, with a larger rate of heat uptake since 2000 compared to the previous decades and with the largest storage in the Southern Ocean. The first formal detection studies for ocean thermal expansion and glacier mass loss since the AR5 have confirmed the AR5 finding of a significant anthropogenic contribution to sea-level rise over the last 50 years. New projections of glacier loss from two regions suggest smaller contributions to GMSL rise from these regions than in studies assessed by the AR5; additional regional studies are required to further assess whether there are broader implications of these results. Mass loss from the Greenland Ice Sheet, primarily as a result of increased surface melting, and from the Antarctic Ice Sheet, primarily as a result of increased ice discharge, has accelerated. The largest estimates of acceleration in mass loss from the two ice sheets for 2003-2013 equal or exceed the acceleration of GMSL rise calculated from the satellite altimeter sea-level record over the longer period of 1993-2014. However, when increased mass
gain in land water storage and parts of East Antarctica, and decreased mass
loss from glaciers in Alaska and some other regions, are taken into account,
the net acceleration in the ocean mass gain is consistent with the satellite
altimeter record. New studies suggest that a marine ice-sheet instability (MISI) may have been initiated in parts of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS), but that it will affect only a limited number of ice streams in the 21st century. New projections of mass loss from the Greenland and Antarctic Ice Sheets by 2100, including a contribution from parts of WAIS undergoing unstable retreat, suggest a contribution that falls largely within the likely range (i.e., two-thirds probability) of the AR5. These new results increase confidence in the AR5 likely range, indicating that there is a greater probability that sea-level rise by 2100 will lie in this range with a corresponding decrease in the likelihood of an additional contribution of several tens of centimeters above the likely range. In view of the comparatively limited state of knowledge and understanding of rapid ice-sheet dynamics, we continue to think that it is not yet possible to make reliable quantitative estimates of future GMSL rise outside the likely range. Projections of 21st-century GMSL rise published since the AR5 depend on results from expert elicitation, but we have low confidence in conclusions based on these approaches. New work on regional projections and emergence of the anthropogenic signal suggests that the two commonly predicted features of future regional sea-level change (the increasing tilt across the Antarctic Circumpolar Current and the dipole in the North Atlantic) are related to regional changes in wind stress and surface heat flux. Moreover, it is expected that sea-level change in response to anthropogenic forcing, particularly in regions of relatively low unforced variability such as the low-latitude Atlantic, will be detectable over most of the ocean by 2040. The east-west contrast of sea-level trends in the Pacific observed since the early 1990s cannot be satisfactorily accounted for by climate models, nor yet definitively attributed either to unforced variability or forced climate change. 
Original languageEnglish
JournalCurrent Climate Change Reports
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 2015

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