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Thursday, September 4, 2008

Popular press once again misconstrues results from scientific paper on sea level rise by 2100


How much will sea level rise?
Filed under: — group @ 8:09 PM

… is the question people have been putting a lot of thought into since the IPCC AR4 report came out. We analysed what was in the report quite carefully at the time and pointed out that the allowance for dynamic ice sheet processes was very uncertain, and actually precluded setting a upper limit on what might be expected. The numbers that appeared in some headlines (up to 59 cm by 2100) did not take that uncertainty into account.

In a more recent paper, our own Stefan Rahmstorf used a simple regression model to suggest that sea level rise (SLR) could reach 0.5 to 1.4 meters above 1990 levels by 2100, but this did not consider individual processes like dynamic ice sheet changes, being only based on how global sea level has been linked to global warming over the past 120 years. As Stefan discussed, any non-linear or threshold behavior of ice sheets could lead to sea level rising faster than this estimate. Thus, otherwise quite conservative voices have been stressing the 'unknown unknown' nature of this problem and suggesting that, based on paleo-data (for instance), it was really hard to rule out sea level rises measured in feet, and not in inches. (Note too, the SLR is very much a lagging indicator, and will continue for centuries past the time that atmospheric temperatures have stabilised).

The first paper to really try and assess the future limits on dynamic ice sheet loss appeared in Science this week. Pfeffer et al looked at the exit glaciers for Greenland and West Antarctica and made some back of the envelope calculations of how quickly the ice sheets could dynamically drain.

Good news: they rule out more than 2 meters of sea level coming from Greenland alone in the next century. This is however more than anyone has ever suggested and would be comparable to the amount that disappeared at the Eemian (125,000 years ago) (see this post for more on that).

Bad news: they can't rule out up to 2 meters in total.

In summary, they estimate that including dynamic ice sheet processes gives projected SLR at 2100 somewhere in the 80 cm to 2 meter range, and suggest that 80 cm should be the 'default' value. This is remarkable in a number of ways - first, these are the highest estimates of sea level rise by 2100 that has been published in the literature to date, and secondly, while they don't take into account the full uncertainty in other aspects of sea level rise considered by IPCC, their numbers are significantly higher in any case. And this week the Dutch 'Delta Commission' published its estimate of sea level rise that the Dutch need to plan for (p111): 55 to 110 cm globally and a bit more for Holland, based on a large number of scientists' input.

Lest readers think this is no big deal, the estimates for the number of people who would be affected by 1 meter of sea level rise is more than 100 million - mainly in Asia. Of some recent relevance is the fact that the storm surge caused by Gustav in New Orleans was within 1 foot of the top of the levees. Another 3 ft caused by global sea level rise would have put a lot more water into the 'bowl'.

Thus better estimates of sea level rise from ice sheets remain a high priority for the climate community. More sophisticated models and deeper understanding are coming along and hopefully those results will be out soon.

We were going to leave it at that, but we've just seen the initial media coverage where this result is being spun as a downgrading of predictions! (exemplified by this Reuters piece, drawing mainly from the U. Colorado press release). This is completely backwards. We stress that no-one (and we mean no-one) has published an informed estimate of more than 2 meters of sea level rise by 2100. Tellingly, the statement in the paper that suggests otherwise has no reference.

There have certainly been incorrect assertions and headlines implying that 20 ft of sea level by 2100 was expected, but they are mostly based on a confusion of a transient rise with the eventual sea level rise which might take hundreds to thousands of years. And before someone gets up to say Al Gore, we'll point out preemptively that he made no prediction for 2100 or any other timescale. The nearest thing I can find is Jim Hansen who states that "it [is] almost inconceivable that BAU climate change would not yield a sea level change of the order of meters on the century timescale". But that is neither a specific prediction for 2100, nor necessarily one that is out of line with the Pfeffer et al's bounds.

Thus, this media reporting stands as a classic example of how scientists get caught up trying to counter supposed myths but end up perpetuating others, and miss an opportunity to actually educate the public. The problem is not that people think that we will get 6 meters of sea level rise this century, it's that they don't think there'll be anything to speak of. Headlines like that in the Reuters piece (or National Geographic) are therefore doing a fundamental disservice to the public understanding of the problem.

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