Sea level rise since 1850

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Sea level observations between 1993 and November 2018.
The measured rise in mean sea level between 1870 and 2009 is around 25 cm
Regional distribution of sea level rise between 1993 and 2007. The changes were measured with the TOPEX / Poseidon and Jason 1 satellites

From a global perspective, a significant rise in sea level has been observed since the middle of the 19th century , which was around 17 cm in the 20th century alone. An acceleration has also been observed in the past few decades: the average rise in sea level in the period from 1901 to 2010 is given in the IPCC's Fifth Assessment Report as 19 ± 2 cm. Between 1901 and 2010 the sea ​​level rose by 1.7 millimeters per year, from 1993 to 2010 it was an average of 3.2 mm per year. The record value of 3.7 millimeters was measured for 2018. As a result of the greenhouse gas releases that have already taken place, the sea levels will continue to rise for centuries; the amount of the rise depends on the amount of greenhouse gases released. The rise in sea level is essentially based on two phenomena: the warming of the oceans leads to the expansion of the water ( expansion coefficient 1,0002 per degree, based on the volume approximately three times), the increased air temperatures to the melting of glaciers and ice sheets , causing water from the mainland in reaches the oceans.

One cause of global ocean and atmosphere warming is human activity. To what extent long-term geodynamic changes such as the sinking of tectonic plates or a countermovement to the Little Ice Age (around 1850) play a role in the rise of sea levels is still unclear.

According to systematic evaluations of expert opinions, if the temperature rises by five degrees Celsius, there is a 5% probability of a sea level rise of more than 2.38 meters by 2100. According to further research results, a rise of 2.5 m to 5, 1 m possible.

The rise in sea level is particularly threatening island states and countries with broad coastal areas and low-lying hinterland, such as Bangladesh and the Netherlands . Poor countries are much more at risk than wealthy industrialized countries, which can afford costly coastal protection measures. Effective coastal protection costs significantly less - in most cases less than 0.1 percent of GDP - than repairing the damage that results from inactivity.

Geological review

Sea level rise over the past 24,000 years. The “ meltwater pulse 1A ”, a short transition phase to today's warm period , in which the sea level rose by one meter every 20 to 25 years, is particularly noted

In the geological past there have been enormous fluctuations in sea levels. There is often a close connection between global temperature and sea level (see →  Eustasia ). Over geological time periods, a change in the global average temperature of 1 ° C is associated with a rise or fall in sea level of 10 to 20 m.

For the last time the earth was essentially free of larger polar ice caps in the warm climate of the Paleogene about 35 million years ago . The sea level was then almost 70 m higher than it is today. From the Eocene - Oligocene transition, the global cooling trend that had prevailed since the Middle Eocene intensified and led to the first glaciations in the Antarctic . In the Pliocene , about three million years ago, the Arctic was still ice-free. For large parts of the epoch, the global climate was around 2 to 3 ° C above pre-industrial temperatures, with a correspondingly higher sea level of 15 to 25 m above the current level. During the last interglacial , the Eem warm period about 126,000 to 115,000 years ago, summer temperatures in the northern hemisphere were about 2 ° C warmer than in the pre-industrial reference period (in Greenland even 5 ° C).

Most recent studies assume that the sea level in the Eem warm period was about 6 to 9 m above today's level. Of this, the Greenland Ice Sheet accounted for a proportion of meltwater of around 1.5 to 2.5 m, the remainder was due to the reduction of the West Antarctic ice cover as well as the thermal expansion of seawater and the melting of mountain glaciers. According to this, the Greenland Ice Sheet lost 20 to 30 percent of its mass during this period, with individual studies applying higher values ​​and estimating a decrease of up to 60 percent.

Paleogeographic representation of the North Sea about 9000 years ago (after the end of the Vistula Glacial Period )

At the height of the subsequent glacial period ( last ice age maximum ) about 20,000 years ago, the sea level was 120 m lower and the global average temperature 5 to 6 ° C lower than today. At the transition to the present warm period, the Holocene , the sea level rose very rapidly over the course of several millennia. About 8,000 years ago, the increase slowed to settle at a nearly constant level about 6,000 years ago. Depending on the relatively minor fluctuations in the global climate as well as post-glacial land uplifts or subsidence, changes in sea level in the decimeter range only occurred in the later Holocene .

Increase in the recent past

Since industrialization and with it since the beginning of human-caused global warming until today, the rise in sea level has accelerated significantly. In the entire 18th century it only increased by 2 cm, in the 19th century by 6 cm and in the 20th century by 19 cm.

Between 1840 and 2001, the water level on the North Sea coast rose by 23 cm. Between 1870 and 2004 the sea level rose by about 19.5 cm, the average measured increase was 1.7 ± 0.5 mm per year in the 20th century and 1.8 ± 0.5 mm per year between 1961 and 2003. The increase in the course of the 20th century could have been underestimated. If the amounts of water that were increasingly retained behind dams are included, this results in an arithmetical increase of 2.46 mm per year for the period from 1930 to 2007.

The increase has accelerated significantly since the 1990s. Satellite data from 1993 to 2016 show an increase rate of 3.1 ± 0.4 mm. After taking into account the Pinatubo effect and the ENSO fluctuations, the remaining anthropogenic rate of increase was somewhat lower, but with a clearly visible acceleration: (2.9 ± 0.4 + 0.084 ± 0.025 / y) mm / y with 2005.0 as Time zero. For 2018, this is calculated as 3.3 mm / y, 3.7 millimeters were observed,


The investigation of individual causes also shows the acceleration:

source Contribution in mm / y in the period
1961-2003 1993-2003
Thermal expansion of the seas 0.42 ± 0.12 1.60 ± 0.50
Glacial melt 0.50 ± 0.18 0.77 ± 0.22
Greenland Ice Sheet 0.05 ± 0.12 0.21 ± 0.07
Antarctic ice sheet 0.14 ± 0.41 0.21 ± 0.35

More recent studies are available for Greenland, according to which this trend has continued.

The melting of icebergs floating in the salt water contributes little to the rise in sea level. If all the ice that is floating today melts, the sea level would rise by about 4 cm. - Ice floating in the salty sea contains almost no salt, sometimes trapped brine is even excreted. Ice, which first floats in fresh water and then melts, does not increase the water level according to Archimedes' buoyancy , provided the temperature of the liquid water remains the same. The melting of floating (salt-free!) Ice in salt water, however, increases the sea level, albeit to a relatively small extent: the sea water has a density about 2.6% higher than salt-free water. A floating ice block of 1 t displaces exactly 1 t of seawater, which however only takes up a volume of about 0.975 m³. If the same block of ice melts and mixes with the sea water at 4 ° C, it increases its volume by 1 m³. The sea volume therefore increases by 2.6% of the volume of the water previously displaced by the ice.

Future increase

Malé , the capital of the Maldives , is one meter above sea level
Comparison of the measured sea level rise between 1970 and 2010 with the projections of the IPCC since 1990: Reality is at the upper end of the IPCC scenarios of the time

If the increase from thermal expansion and ice melt determined for the years 1993 to 2016 only continues linearly, the sea level would rise by 28 cm by 2100, with the determined acceleration term to 65 ± 12 cm. According to various scenarios of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), published in its Fourth Assessment Report in 2007 , by the period 2090–2099 the sea level could rise on a global average between 0.18 m and 0.59 compared to the period 1980–1999 increase m. This estimate excluded dynamic behavior of ice sheets , which was not understood at the time this report was written. In the fifth assessment report of the IPCC from 2013, the dynamic behavior of ice sheets was taken into account for the first time and the estimate was raised. Depending on the scenario, an increase of between 0.26 m and 0.98 m is expected. In the “Business As Usual scenario” RCP 8.5 (see representative concentration path), the annual rate of increase expected in the period 2081–2100 rises to 8–16 mm.

More recent findings indicate that the forecasts of sea level rise by the IPCC in the 5th Assessment Report are probably calculated too conservatively and that sea level rise could be more pronounced. For example, a group led by climatologist James E. Hansen published a paper in 2015 that refers to exponential dynamics that suggest that the sea level will rise by more than one meter as early as 2050. Researchers working with Steve Nerem have calculated using satellite measurements that the sea level rises a little faster every year. Therefore, the average level on the coasts in 2100 could be 65 centimeters higher than in 2005. The National Climate Assessment of May 2014 compares a sea level rise of 1 to 4 feet (30 to 120 cm) by the end of the 21st century expected at pre-industrial value. Against the background of similarly rapid increases during the Eem interglacial 120,000 years ago, such estimates are realistic. It should be noted that the increase will not be equally noticeable all over the world. Due to eustatic fluctuations, significantly higher values ​​than the global average are assumed for the North Pacific and the US coast.

Since the second half of the 2010s, it has also been considered likely that the West Antarctic Ice Sheet with the Thwaites Glacier has already been destabilized. If this is actually the case, this would mean that over the next few centuries, the melting of the glaciers there alone will lead to a certain rise in sea level of around 3 meters.

If the warming stabilizes at 3 ° C compared to the pre-industrial value, a sea level rise of 2.5 to 5.1 m is forecast by the year 2300. Of this, 0.4 to 0.9 m would be due to thermal expansion, 0.2 to 0.4 m due to the melting of mountain glaciers, 0.9 to 1.8 m due to the melting of Greenland's glaciers and 1 to 2 m due to the Melting the glaciers of West Antarctica contributed.

A complete melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet would raise the sea level by about 7.3 m. It is currently expected that this process would take at least several hundred years. A melting of the West Antarctic ice sheet, which is in principle unstable along with Greenland, would cause the oceans to rise by about the same amount. The 25 million km³ of ice in the entire Antarctic would even lead to an increase of between approx. 57 m and 61 m, depending on the source. With a volume of 80,000 km³, the almost 160,000 glaciers around the world contain enough water to cause the sea level to rise by 24 cm when they melt completely. The polar plateau glaciers away from the ice masses of Greenland and the Antarctic mainland are of a similar size (100,000 km³) and could raise the sea level by 27 cm. The thermal expansion contributes 20 to 40 cm to the rise in sea level per degree Celsius warming. According to estimates, the complete melting of polar ice caps, glaciers and ice fields with global warming to an average of 27 degrees would be equivalent to a sea level rise of over 65 m. The National Geographic devoted an article to the September 2013 edition of a scenario with an increase of 66 m; According to some researchers, however, such an increase would only be expected in over 5,000 years if CO 2 emissions continued as before.

A study published in 2019 looked at the likely sea level rise by 2100, taking into account several factors: the evolution of ice sheets, thermal expansion of the oceans, glacial melts and land water reservoirs. According to this study, by 2100 there is a small but relevant probability that sea level rise will be more than two meters by 2100. Specifically, in a two-degree warming scenario, a sea level rise of between 36 and 126 cm can be expected with 90% certainty, and in a five-degree warming scenario, a sea level rise of between 62 and 238 cm. Only with a 5% probability is the increase either below or above.

The thermal expansion is driven by the independent warming of the deep water, which is caused by the mixing of warm surface water with cooler water from deeper layers. Even if effective climate protection helps to stabilize air temperatures, a delay in the cessation of temperature increases of several centuries must be assumed for the oceans, within which nothing can be changed in the thermal component of the sea level rise. Even if effective climate protection were implemented immediately, the rise in sea levels would hardly be slowed down in the next few decades.

The National Research Council of the United States in 2010 believed a sea level rise between 56 cm and 2 meters by 2100 was possible.

Direct threat and countermeasures

Shanghai , with almost 20 million inhabitants, the largest city ​​in the world with millions of inhabitants , is on average 4 meters above sea level

The effects of sea level rise can be roughly classified into five categories:

The rise in sea levels poses particular dangers for residents of coastal regions and cities. Countries most at risk from sea level rise include Bangladesh , Egypt , Pakistan , Maldives , Indonesia and Thailand , all of which have large and relatively poor populations. So live z. For example, in Egypt around 16% of the population (around twelve million people) live in an area that would be flooded if the sea level rises by 50 cm, and in Bangladesh over ten million people live no higher than 1 m above sea level . With a sea level rise of 100 cm, not only they, but a total of 70 million people in Bangladesh would have to be resettled if the country does not invest in coastal protection measures. In addition, the loss of land and the increase in the salt content in the soil would cut the rice harvest in half.

Without countermeasures, a rise in sea level of 1 m would permanently flood 150,000 km² of land area worldwide, 62,000 km² of which are coastal wetlands. 180 million people would be affected and $ 1.1 trillion in property destroyed would be expected (given today's population and assets). According to the OECD , by 2070 the number of people in coastal cities with a population of over a million who are threatened by a flood event that statistically occurs once every hundred years will increase from around 40 million people in 2005 to 150 million. This applies to an assumed increase in sea level of 0.5 m. While the risk of consequential economic damage in the 136 port cities examined is currently $ 3 trillion, this figure is likely to increase more than tenfold over the next 60 years to $ 35 trillion, while coastal protection measures can of course reduce this risk considerably.

Some small countries in the Pacific Ocean in particular have to fear that, due to their very low altitude, they will sink into the sea in the next few decades if the increase does not slow down. The Tuvalu archipelago has become popular in this context, because its highest point is only five meters above sea level and is therefore considered to be particularly vulnerable. Also affected are the Hallig islands in the German North Sea, which are at sea level and their existence is endangered in the long term.

In October 2019, a study with improved data analysis was published in the journal Nature Communications , which found that the number of people who will be affected by sea level rise during the 21st century is three times higher than previously thought. By 2050, 300 million people could be affected by floods on average once a year. A large number of those affected will live in coastal areas in the Asian countries of China, Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, Japan and the Philippines.


Weather and earth observation satellites have been used to study meteorological processes since the early 1960s . Since then, weather and climate research has had completely different options than before.

From July 2000 to September 2010, CHAMP collected precise information about global temperature and water vapor distributions.

The follow-up project GRACE ( Gravity Recovery And Climate Experiment ) has been providing precise information about global temperature and water vapor distributions since May 2006. The measurement data made it possible to prove that the Antarctic ice mass has decreased by approx. 150 km³ within 3 years, which caused the sea level to rise by 0.4 mm per year.

From January 2003 to October 2009, ICESat (Ice, Cloud and Land Elevation Satellite) measured the thickness of the ice sheet (including sea ice), its change, height profiles of clouds and aerosols and the height of vegetation. The satellite used laser technology for measurement. The successor satellite ICESat-2 was launched in September 2018.

See also


Web links

Individual evidence

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