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WIREs Clim Change
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Sea level and climate: measurements and causes of changes

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We review present‐day observations of sea level change and variability at global and regional scales, focusing on the altimetry era starting in the early 1990s. Over the past ∼18‐years, the rate of global mean sea level rise has reached 3.3 ± 0.4 mm/year, nearly twice that of the previous decades, although the observed larger sea level rise rate may be influenced by decadal or longer variations in the ocean. Moreover, sea level rates are not geographically uniform; in some regions like the tropical western Pacific, rates are up to 3–4 times higher than the global mean rate. We next discuss the climate‐related components of the global mean sea level rise. Over the last ∼18‐years, ocean thermal expansion contributes about one third to the observed rise while total land ice (glacier melting plus ice sheet mass loss) contribute the other two third. The spatial trend patterns evidenced over the altimetry period mostly result from nonuniform steric sea level changes (effects of ocean temperature and salinity), largely caused by wind‐driven ocean circulation changes. Such patterns are not stationary but oscillate through time on decadal/multidecadal time scale, in response to natural modes of the coupled ocean‐atmosphere system. We close up this review by briefly discussing future (21st century) sea level rise. Current limited knowledge of the future evolution of the mass balance of the Greenland and Antarctica ice sheets leads to high uncertainty on the global mean sea level rise expected for the next 50–100 years. WIREs Clim Change 2011 2 647–662 DOI: 10.1002/wcc.139

Figure 1.

Twentieth century mean sea level from tide gauge data. Source: Black curve—data from Church and White;18 Red curve—data from Jevrejeva et al.15

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Figure 2.

Satellite altimetry‐based global mean sea level between January 1993 and March 2011. The curve is based on the Topex/Poseidon, Jason‐1, and Jason‐2 data (http://www.aviso.oceanobs.com/en/data/products/sea‐surface‐height‐products/global/msla/index.html). Most updated geophysical and environmental corrections have been applied to the data, including the inverted barometer correction (see Ref 21 for details). A correction of −0.3 mm/year is also applied to account for GIA.19 Blue dots are 10‐day data; The red curve corresponds to a 6‐month smoothing of the blue dots.

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Figure 3.

Spatial trend patterns in sea level computed from January 1993 to October 2010 and based on the multimission (Topex/Poseidon, Jaon‐1, Jason‐2, ERS, and Envisat satellites), gridded sea level products available from the CLS/AVISO website (http://www.aviso.oceanobs.com/en/data/products/sea‐surface‐height‐products/global/msla/index.html) at weekly interval.

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Figure 4.

Ocean thermal expansion since 1950/1955 based on in situ temperature data down to 700 m. Source: Dotted curve—data from the WOD09 database34; Solid curve—data from Ishii and Kimoto.35

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Figure 5.

Steric sea level evolution since January 1993. Green curve: data from WOD09; Black, red and blue curves: data from different Argo data bases (see Ref 38 for details).

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Figure 6.

Compilation of published estimates of the ice sheet mass balance for the past two decades. (Updated from Ref 44) (a) Greenland ice sheet; (b) Antarctica ice sheet.

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Figure 7.

Compilation of published estimates of glacier and ice cap mass balance (from T. Pfeffer, personal communication; updated by E. Berthier). The horizontal dashed lines represent sea level equivalent values. Black/orange dots refer to in situ/geodetic measurements.

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Figure 8.

Detrended global mean sea level between 1993 and 2004; red curve. Land water storage contribution (expressed in sea level equivalent) estimated from the ISBA‐TRIP global hydrological model95; green curve. (Adapted from Ref 94)

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Figure 9.

(a) Spatial trend patterns in altimetry‐based sea level over 1993–2009 with respect to the global mean rise (a uniform mean trend of 3.3 mm/year has been removed). (b) Spatial trend patterns in steric sea level over 1993–2009 (data from the WOD09 database down to 700 m34; uniform mean trend removed).

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