Sea levels could rise twice as fast as previously predicted

Limited understanding of past ground shifts adds uncertainty to projected increase by 2100

Thwaites Glacier in West Antarctica

ON THE RISE  The collapse of keystone glaciers in West Antarctica, such as Thwaites Glacier, could raise sea levels faster and sooner than thought.

NASA/Wikimedia Commons

Antarctica’s meltdown could spur sea level rise well beyond current predictions. A new simulation of the continent’s thawing ice suggests that Antarctic melting alone will raise global sea levels by about 64 to 114 centimeters by 2100, scientists report in the March 31 Nature.

Adding Antarctic melt to other sources of sea level rise, such as the expansion of warming seawater and melting Greenland ice, the scientists predict that sea levels will rise 1.5 to 2.1 meters by the end of the century. That’s as much as double previous predictions that didn’t incorporate mechanisms that can expedite the Antarctic ice sheet’s collapse, though uncertainties remain, says study coauthor David Pollard, a paleoclimatologist at Penn State.

Predicting future sea level rise requires understanding how the oceans rose in the past. Scientists often glean ancient sea level rise by reconstructing the locations of ancient coastlines. But these coastlines can be a slippery target: Forces such as tectonic activity can cause Earth’s surface to rise and fall, obscuring the effects of past sea level rise. Depending on how much uplift obfuscated ancient sea level records — ranging from no uplift to massive uplift — the new prediction of 21st century sea level rise can differ by 35 centimeters or more.

A separate study also highlights the challenges of factoring changing coastlines into sea level rise predictions. Researchers estimate online April 2 in Geophysical Research Letters that groundwater depletion has caused the coasts of California and India to rebound upward, counteracting sea level rise in those regions by about 0.4 millimeters per year.

“I really would be happier if we had the luxury of doing the research on this without bothering the public until we have 95 percent confidence in an answer,”says Penn State glaciologist Richard Alley, who was not involved in either study. “Any single forecast is notably uncertain, but if we continue warming the world rapidly, the most likely outcome is a major event of large and rapid sea level rise.”

Two warm periods, one about 125,000 years ago and another about 3 million years ago, were particularly useful for Pollard and coauthor Robert DeConto, a geoscientist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Those bouts of warming shrank Earth’s ice sheets and boosted sea levels by several meters. Pollard and DeConto used these sea level records to fine-tune a computer simulation of how climate change affects the Antarctic ice sheet. The researchers then applied their calibrated simulation to current climate conditions and projected sea level rise thousands of years into the future.

Assuming that society takes no actions to curb greenhouse gas emissions, the simulation predicts that Antarctic melting will accelerate around 2050 as rising temperatures destabilize several keystone glaciers in West Antarctica. After 2100, Antarctica’s contribution to sea level rise will exceed 4 centimeters a year — more than 10 times the current rate from all sources.

Such severe sea level rise would reshape most of Earth’s coastlines, and the waters would rise even higher as time goes on, Pollard predicts.  “Sea levels won’t peak until around 3,000 to 4,000 years from now,”he says. At that point, Antarctica will have raised global sea levels by about 20 meters.

The consequences of this long-term sea level rise will be dire, says Maureen Raymo, a marine geologist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in Palisades, N.Y., who was not involved with the work. “I haven’t seen anyone mention the long, slowly unfolding refugee crisis that will only get worse as hundreds of millions [of people] are displaced worldwide,” she says.

Editor’s note: This story was updated April 6, 2016, to more precisely indicate the top of the range of predicted sea level rise by 2100.

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