Sea Level Rise: How far, how fast?

A paper appeared in Science this week about sea level rise in the last interglacial (about 129-116,000 years ago). It has sparked the usual predictable headlines as it points out that during that period, sea level rose by about 6-9 metres but that that the ocean temperature as far as it can be reconstructed, is about what we see now, that is about 0.5C warmer than the preindustrial.

Guardian reports on latest study

In a sense this isn’t that “new” – we’ve known about higher sea levels during the last interglacial for ages and that the global mean temperature was roughly 2C above the pre-industrial global mean. This is in fact one of the reasons for the Paris target (though some scientists speculate that it’s also pretty much already out of reach).

However, the sea surface temperature stuff makes it extra interesting as the ocean is a pretty big source of uncertainty in global climate models and mot models do not manage to reproduce modern day ocean temperatures all that well.

It should also be said that the last interglacial is only a good analogue for 2C world up to a point – it was warm because of enhanced solar input, not because of greenhouse gases as this plot from an Antarctic ice core, edited by the awesome Bethan Davies at the Antarctic Glaciers blog shows:

Carbon dioxide (CO2), Methane (CH4) with reconstructed temperature from the Vostok Ice Core, taken in Eastern Antarctica. Enhanced with modern methane, CO2 and temperature measurements by Bethan Davies. Note that the “modern” value of CO2 here is from 2004. In 2017 it is currently measuring 403 ppm.

It’s also interesting to speculate where the water came from – the Greenland ice sheet was much smaller than today but it was still there and now “only” contains 7m of sea level rise today. So the complete disappearance of Greenland cannot explain the rise in global sea level. The small glaciers and ice caps of the world can’t contribute more than half a metre or so either. Therefore it has to be Antarctica contributing the most – East or West is the question and it really is a very very longstanding question.

The progress in the international polar year (IPY) in mapping the bedrock of Antarctic in the BEDMAP2 brought quite a few surprises, including the discovery of several very deep marine basins in the East that could potentially contribute a lot of water to sea level.

More recently, channels under the floating ice shelves of west Antartica, along with various modelling studies have proposed that the west could be much more unstable than thought. Actually this has been a very very longstanding problem in Antarctic science since at least the late 1970s when John Mercer first proposed the marine ice sheet instability hypothesis.

In any case, events in both Denmark and the UK have brought this problem home more sharply.

The silent storm surge – coastal flooding in Copenhagen on the 5th January – the water in the harbour is not normally this high! Source: Brian Dehli, shared by DR 


The “silent storm surge” in January 2017 around the coast of Denmark was  a hundred year event in many places, but as Aslak Grinsted points out, sea level rise makes a hundred year event a 20 year event with only a small rise.

Sea level will not rise equally everywhere, the fingerprint of Greenland ice sheet loss is felt largely in the Pacific, Antarctic ice melt will be felt in Europe. It matters where the water comes from. A point not generally appreciated.

So this new paper is also important, but it only underlines that we need to be able to make much much better estimates of how fast and how far the ice sheets will retreat, which is the justification for much of my own scientific research.

Finally, I think it’s probably necessary to point out that sea level is already rising. This was asked by a listener to Inside science, one of my favourite BBC radio 4 programmes/podcasts. I was a little surprised that an apparently scientifically literate and interested member of the public was not aware that we can measure sea level rise pretty well – in fact to an extent, the global warming signal is more easily detected in the ocean than in the global temperature record. This is because the ocean expands as it warms and there is ocean pretty much everywhere, whereas temperature observations are patchy and mostly on land. Clearly, scientists like myself are *still* not doing a very good job of communicating our science more widely. So here is the global mean sea level record to date, it’s updated pretty regularly here and on average, sea level is rising at about 3mm per year or 3cm per decade.


Sea level variation measured by satellite since 1993 from NASA

When we look at tidal gauges,sea level rose about 20cm in the 2oth century

Sea level rise in the 20th century measured by tide gauges, plot by NASA, data from CSIRO

The big uncertainties we have on whether or not this will accelerate in years to come is largely down to missing processes in ice sheet models that we don’t yet understand or model well – mostly calving by glaciers and ice shelves. I promised Steve Bloom a blog post on that at some point – I have a paper to finish and new simulations to run, but hopefully I’ll get round to that next.

UPDATE: I was made aware this morning of a new report from the European Environment Agency about climate change impacts and adaptation in Europe. In the report they state (correctly) that while the IPCC 5th Assessment Report suggested that in the 21st century the likely sea level rise will be on the order of half a metre, some national and expert assessments (I took part in a couple of these) had suggested an upper bound of 1.5 – 2m this century, for high emissions scenarios.

This is a big difference and would be pretty challenging to adapt to in low-lying countries like the Netherlands and Denmark, not to mention big coastal cities like London or Hamburg. It’s laso important to emphasise that it doesn’t jsut stop at the end of the century, in fact our simulations of the retreat of Greenland ice sheet suggest it’s only just getting going at the end of this century and the next century the rate of ice loss will really start to accelerate.

All of which is to say, there’s really a very good reason to act now to reduce our emissions. The EEA has also produced this very nice map of observed sea level rise in Europe over the last two decades based on  Copernicus environmental data.

Check out how much the sea level is rising where you live… Source: European Environment Agency, data from Copernicus Marine Environment Monitoring Service

With the prospect of American federal funding for environmental observations being reduced or strongly constrained in the future, it’s really important we start to identify and support the European datasets which are the only other sources of environmental monitoring out there right now.



Conversion Factors

The official end of the hydrological year in Greenland (1st September to 31st August) means I am rather busy writing reports to give an overview of where the ice sheet is this year and what happened. I will try to write a quick blogpost about this in the next week or so (in case you’re curious here’s a quick plot to show the entire annual SMB, see also:

Daily and accumulated surface mass budget of the Greenland ice sheet, 31st August, 2015, last day of the hydrological year
Daily and accumulated surface mass budget of the Greenland ice sheet, 31st August, 2015
Anyway, as I find I am constantly switching between Gigatonnes (or indeed Gigatons), cubic kilometres and sea level equivalent, here is a quick and handy guide to converting different units of mass, for my own use as much as anyone else.

1 gigatonne is 1 billion metric tonnes  (or 1 milliard if you like the old British style, that is one thousand million).

However, on the Polar Portal we usually reckon everything in water equivalent. This is to save having to distinguish between snow (with a density between ~100 kg/m3 when freshly fallen and ~350 kg/m3 m when settled after a few days), firn (snow that has survived a full annual cycle with a density up to ~800 kg/m3) and glacier ice (anything from ~850 kg/m3 to 900+). Water has a density (at 4C) of 1000 kg/m3

1 gigatonne of ice will still weigh 1 gigatonne when it is melted but the volume will be lower since ice expands when it freezes.

1 metric tonne of water is 1 cubic metre and 1 billion metric tonnes is 1 km3 (a cubic kilometre of water)

A cubic kilometre of ice does not however weight 1 gigatonne but about 10% less because of the density difference.

100 gigatonnes of water is roughly 0.28mm of sea level rise (on average, note there are big regional differences in how sea level smooths itself out).

Finally, 1 mm sea level rise is 360 Gt of ice (roughly the number of days in a year) 

EDIT: – thanks to ice sheet modeler Frank Pattyn and ice core specialist Tas van Ommen on Twitter for pointing out I’d missed this last handy conversion. Interestingly and probably entirely coincidentally this is very close to the amount of mass lost by the Greenland ice sheet reported by Helm et al., 2014 for the the period January 2011 – January 2014 (pdf here) of 375 +/-24 km3 per year.

Over the last 10 years or so, Greenland has lost on average around 250 Gigatonnes of ice a year (Shepherd et al., 2012), contributing a bit less than a millimetre to global sea level every year with some big interannual variability. This year looks like it will be a comparable number but we will have to wait for the GRACE satellite results in a couple of months to fill in the dynamic component of the mass budget and come up with our final number.

Of course, gigatonnes and cubic kilometres are rather hard to visualise so we have skeptical science to thank for this post that tries. And as aside, Chris Mooney wrote a nice piece in the Washington Post on the difficulties of visualising how much ice is being lost which contains the immortal  line “Antarctica is clearly losing billions of African elephants worth of ice each year”.

Changes in SW Greenland ice sheet melt

A paper my colleague Peter Langen wrote together with myself and various other collaborators and colleagues has just come out in the Journal of Climate. I notice that the Climate Lab Book regularly present summaries of their papers so here I try to give a quick overview of ours. The model output used in this run is available now for download.

The climate of Greenland has been changing over the last 20 or so years, especially in the south. In this paper we showed that the amount of melt and liquid water run off from the ice sheet in the south west has increased at the same time as the equilibrium line (roughly analogous to the snow line at the end of summer on the ice sheet) has started to move up the ice sheet. Unlike previous periods when we infer the same thing happened this can be attributed to warmer summers rather than drier winters.

Map showing area around Nuuk
The area we focus on in this study is in SW Greenland close to Nuuk, the capital. White shows glaciers, blue is sea, brown is land not covered by ice.

We focused on the area close to Nuuk, the capital of Greenland, as we had access to a rather useful but unusual (in Greenland) dataset gathered by Asiaq the Greenland survey. They have been measuring the run off from a lake near the margin of the ice sheet for some years and made this available to us in order to test the model predictions. This kind of measurement is particularly useful as it integrates melt and run-off from a wider area than the usual point measurements. As our model is run at 5.5 km resolution, one grid cell has to approximate all the properties of a 5.5 km grid cell. Imagine your house and how much land varies in type, shape and use in a 5.5 km square centred on your house and you begin to appreciate the problems of using a single point observation to assess what is essentially an area simulation! This is even more difficult in mountainous areas close to the sea, like the fjords of Norway or err, around south west Greenland (see below).

Represent this in a 5.5km grid cell, include glacier, sea and mountain...  Godthåbsfjord near Nuuk in August
The beautiful fjords near Nuuk. Represent this in a 5.5km grid cell…

The HIRHAM5 model is one of very few regional climate models that are run at sufficiently high resolution to start to clearly see the climate influences of mountains, fjords etc in Greenland, which meant we didn’t need to do additional statistical downscaling to see results that matched quite closely the measured discharge from the lake.

Graph comparing modelled versus measured discharge as a daily mean from Lake Tasersuaq near Nuuk, Greenland. The model output was summed over the Tasersuaq drainage basin and smoothed by averaging over the previous 7 days. This is because the model does not have a meltwater routing scheme so we estimated how long it takes for melt and run-off fromt he ice sheet to reach this point.
Graph comparing modelled versus measured discharge as a daily mean from Lake Tasersuaq near Nuuk, Greenland. The model output was summed over the Tasersuaq drainage basin and smoothed by averaging over the previous 7 days. This is because the model does not have a meltwater routing scheme so we estimated how long it takes for melt and run-off from the ice sheet to reach this point.

We were pretty happy to see that HIRHAM5 manages to reproduce this record well. There’s tons of other interesting stuff in the paper including a nice comparison of the first decade of the simulation with the last decade of the simulation, showing that the two look quite different with much more melt, and a lower surface mass balance (the amount of snowfall minus the amount of melt and run – off) per year in recent years.

Red shows where more snow and ice melts than falls and blue shows where more snow falls than is melted on average each year.
Red shows where more snow and ice melts than falls and blue shows where more snow falls than is melted on average each year.

Now, as we work at DMI, we have access to lots of climate records for Greenland. (Actually everyone does, the data is open access and can be downloaded). This means we can compare the measurements in the nearest location, Nuuk, for a bit more than a century. Statistically we can see the last few years have been particularly warm, maybe even warmer than the well known warm spell in the 1920s – 1940s  in Greenland.

Graphs comparing and extending the model simulation back in time with Nuuk observations
Graphs comparing and extending the model simulation back in time with Nuuk observations

There is lots more to be said about this paper, we confirm for example the role of increasing incoming solar radiation (largely a consequence of large scale atmospheric flow leading to clearer skies) and we show some nice results which show how the model is able to reproduce observations at the surface, so I urge you to read it (pdf here) but hopefully this summary has given a decent overview of our model simulations and what we can use them for.

I may get to the future projections next time…

Let it snow…

I have found myself shovelling a lot of snow this winter. As with last winter, it has been cold and snowy across northern Europe so far, which has led to the usual questioning of climate change by the usual suspects. There is some very good work examining this on the real climate blog and Marcus Brigstocke did his usual amusing best on the Now Show towards the end of last year, so I’m not going to write about the difference between weather and climate, or about how regional and global average temperatures differ. Rather, the time spent shovelling snow and wandering around the city streets camera in hand to take photos, really brought home how many of the snow processes that are subjects of active research in remote or mountainous areas are currently on display in our cities.

For instance, today in the local park I noticed that there is preferential melt occurring around the trees. The dark tree trunks absorb and emit more radiation that then melts snow around the trees faster than it melts in the open areas of the lawn. This is an important consideration in the planting of forests in snowy areas, since the presence of vast forests can significantly alter the albedo of the earth’s surface, that is how much radiation is reflected back in to space. Planting trees in the tundra to combat climate change may have the unintended effect of actually enhancing warming through changes of this kind.

Picture of glacier table - a boulder balanced on a thin stack of ice
Glacier table in Switzerland (Glaciers Online)

The process can also be seen to spectacular effect on glaciers, where rocks and boulders shield the ice below them from melting but enhance it around them, leading to the formation of so-called glacier tables, such as this one in Switzerland (from glaciers online).

More seriously, the heavy snow on rooves around the city is currently posing an avalanche hazard rarely encountered outside the mountains. The effect of sunshine on heavy snow, which is resting on a slope of a critical angle, can be extremely dangerous to the unwary. As are the large numbers of icicles which have developed. These are not just a sign of poorly insulated buildings (where the heat leaking out has caused the snow to melt and then quickly refreeze in the low temperatures we’ve had). Icicles falling from buildings show the same mechanics as seracs falling from the steep parts of glaciers known as ice falls. In this case, the ice builds up to such a degree that the sheer weight of it eventually causes fracture when a critical threshold is reached. Pedestrians are learning to walk on the outside of pavements and to look up frequently at the overhanging cornices of snow and ice.

But back to the snow shovelling. I have not done so much digging since fieldwork last winter in Svalbard, where we set up some experiments to study the properties of snow and how this affects the melt, or conversely the growth, of glaciers. Specifically, we were studying the effects of liquid water from snow melt or rain on the snow pack and the glacier surface. Liquid water filters into the snow, or else runs off bare glacier ice if there is no snow and will typically freeze, forming ice lenses in the snow pack, or large areas of what is known as superimposed ice on the glacier surface.   As you can imagine, there was a lot of snow shovelling, especially as the high winds on the glacier kept filling in the trenches we dug to work in.

Now this probably sounds like a fairly esoteric set of experiments, but the purpose is actually quite serious, since we need to know how much melt water refreezes to work out how much the glaciers and large ice sheets of the world are melting and how sea level rise is likely to progress in the future in a warming world.

Identifying the melt area of a glacier or ice sheet is a relatively straightforward task using satellite imagery, but identifying how much of that melt runs off or refreezes is impossible at present, so we generally use a model, based on observations and experiments like these, to make an approximation. We also need to factor in the effect of latent heat, (heat that is released when liquid water becomes solid ice) since this can warm up the snow pack significantly. In Greenland for instance, it is likely that the effects of higher temperatures over the last 20 years or so have been buffered somewhat by the snow pack and refreezing processes. However, as temperatures continue to increase, melt will probably accelerate partly because the saturated snow pack cannot absorb additional melt water but also because it has a higher temperature from the release of latent heat and thus requires less additional energy to melt.

Last winter I tested out some of the techniques we used in Svalbard, in a pile of snow in my back garden. I am also aware of at least one study into permafrost, where patterned ground usually found in Arctic climates was created in a back garden in St Andrews, so it’s even possible to do valid experimental work during the winter time when conditions are right. However, the climate of glaciated regions is generally unlike that of the cities of Europe so there will still be a need to go to places like Svalbard to do experiments quantifying these kind of processes. Nevertheless, I still find this kind of weather inspiring and I’m hoping to get more insights as the winter progresses.