Sea Level Acceleration

Source: Wikimedia Commons

This article addresses the most current research on sea level rise, as well as adaptation measures being taken around the world. Of special interest, brilliant adaptation measures are taking place in the face of higher seas.

“Sea level has been fairly stable for 6,000 years, which is most of human civilization… but its risen eight (8) inches or twenty (20) centimeters in the last century, and the rate is tripling right now.”1

According to knowledgeable sources, regardless of mitigation efforts, sea levels are destined to rise by approximately one foot by 2050. Thereafter, fairly high probabilities indicate up to 5 feet-to-10 feet by the end of the century, which is considerably more than “up to 3 feet in a high-GHG emissions scenario” forecast by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

The oceans have absorbed 93% of the planet’s heat, and there’s no off switch to stop warming ocean waters from melting the world’s two largest ice structures Greenland and Antarctica. What if the oceans did not absorb 93% of the planet’s heat? According to scientists’ calculations in the multi-award-winning documentary Chasing Coral (2017) if oceans stopped absorbing heat, land temps would average 122°F.

During the 1990s Greenland and Antarctica combined lost 81 billion tons of ice mass per year on average. A decade later, during the decade of the 2010s, the ice mass loss increased 6-fold to 475 billion tons per year on average.2

NASA’s findings, published online in the journal Nature from an international team of 89 polar scientists from 50 organizations, are the most comprehensive assessment to date of the changing ice sheets. It is startling information that seems to predestine higher sea levels. The question of the decade, therefore: How to stop the runaway-freight-train loss of ice by Greenland and Antarctica? Is it even possible to control a warming ocean as the root cause?

Speaking of which, on August 30, 2022 the Journal of Geophysical Research published the following paper by A. T. Bradley, et al: “The Influence of Pine Island Ice Shelf Calving on Basal Melting”. (Basal melting occurs from heat delivered by the ocean beneath ice shelves.)

Synopsis of the Bradley paper: “Pine Island Ice Shelf in West Antarctica, which holds back enough ice to raise sea levels by 0.5 meters (1.5 feet), could be more vulnerable to complete disintegration than previously thought. A new study led by British Antarctic Survey (BAS) scientists shows two processes whose recent enhancement already threatens the stability of the shelf can interact to increase the likelihood of collapse.” 3

Pine Island ice shelf, which serves to buttress Pine Island Glacier, is but one of a few hundred ice shelves surrounding Antarctica that hold back the potential of rapid flow of glacial ice to the sea. A collapsing ice shelf is equivalent to taking the goalie out of a hockey game; the net is wide open for rapid flow of the glacier to the sea. As it happens, an ice shelf collapse increases the rate of glacial flow by up to eight (8) times.

It goes without saying that collapsing ice sheets that buttress glacial ice flow are not a welcomed event for the world’s 136 port cities, each with more than one million inhabitants.

Scientists are still shaking in their boots over the shocking disintegration/collapse of Conger Ice Shelf six months ago. It’s the first-ever ice shelf collapse on East Antarctica, which is the coldest and driest location on the planet. On March 14-16 Conger ice shelf suddenly disappeared from satellite photos. It had been there for over a thousand years. All it took was an unusual warm spell and more than a thousand years of solid ice collapsed within only a few days! It’s little wonder scientists are still shaken. East Antarctica has always been considered invincible… until the recent past.

US Harbors of Rockland, ME recently interviewed John Englander, an oceanographer and a Research Fellow at the Institute of Marine Sciences at UC Santa Cruz and one of the world’s foremost speakers on sea level rise.1

According to Englander: “By midcentury, it’s going to be at least a foot higher and by the end of the century, perhaps 5-to-10 feet higher. We need to wake up to a new reality about sea level because sea level determines the shoreline… We need to start now re-designing harbors for the future… Adaptation to higher sea levels is the future.”

Of major concern, “The rate of global sea level rise has tripled in 30 years. It’s gone from an average of a millimeter and a half up to five millimeters in 30 years… if we only melt 5% of global glacial ice, it’s 10 feet of sea level rise.”

Yet, Englander says: “The good news is that we have time to adapt. The bad news is it’s going to change harbors; it’s going to change every coastline from big cities like Jakarta and New York to rural fishing villages in Thailand and Africa.”

A leading institution for ocean studies is NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which will increasingly be an important resource for civil engineers around the world. A recent NASA JPL seminar provides perspective: (1) sea level change (2) how fast it is rising (3) contributing factors, and (4) the influence of land hydrology and melting ice. Josh Willis, an oceanographer at NASA JPL recently conducted the following seminar: “Rising Tide: Tackling Sea Level Rise from Above and Below”, California Institute of Technology, 2022.

The oceans cover more than 2/3rds of the planet’s surface, and they are rising. In Willis’s view, “it’s a bit of a startling idea that 2/3rds of the planet is rising.” The rising sea level is a well-documented event since the early nineties by a series of satellites that have been launched to give a record of how sea levels change all across the planet. The satellites with launch dates: Sentinel 6 (2020) Jason 3 (2016) OSTM/Jason 2 (2008) Jason 1 (2001) and TOPEX/Poseidon (1992).

Thereby, NASA has tools to measure sea level rise as well as its causes. In precise fashion, satellite measurements of the ocean repeatedly occur every second of the hour. This produces an entire map of the ocean once every ten days, providing a global picture of the ocean, similar to tidal gauges of the world.

According to Willis: The planet has been warming pretty rapidly for the past 100 years. And on an historic basis, it’s happening very quickly. What’s different today is that over the last 150 years we’ve changed the composition of the atmosphere radically and increased CO2 by almost a factor of two, meaning we’re running at double the rate of CO2 of the past one-half million years. This is a major global change that will not go away for a long time.

As such, we are changing how the climate works as most of the excessive energy or heat that’s trapped by greenhouse gases goes into the ocean; it’s actually 93%. Thus the oceans get warmer as well as bigger as heated water expands, which accounts for 1/3rd of modern day sea level rise. In total (1) melting inland glaciers and (2) melting ice sheets and (3) warming of the water account for sea level rise.

Significantly, the past 150 years of sea level rise is unprecedented in human history. A graph of the last 30 years of satellite recordings demonstrates the rate of rise increasing during the first 10 years at 2mm per year followed by 3mm in the middle 10 years and 4.5mm per year over the past 10 years. That rate of rise has more than doubled in only 30 years. NASA views this as one of the most comprehensive indicators of how much human influence has changed the climate.

Additionally, Grace satellite missions are another source that actually weigh the land. For example, since the early 2000s, Greenland (20+ feet of water trapped in ice) has lost 5,000,000,000 (five trillion) tons of ice. The heated oceans are responsible for melting Greenland around the edges of the island, which is the major contributor to sea level rise.

New research by the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland claims that anthropogenic-influenced climate change has set in motion irreversible Greenland ice loses amounting to 110 trillion tons, which would trigger nearly a one-foot global sea level rise this century on its own.4.

Moreover, the National Ocean Service of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) 2022 Sea Level Rise Report technical analysis provides an updated projection for U.S. coastal waters thru the year 2150. Accordingly, the next 30 years or today’s generation will see sea level rise of 10-12 inches or one solid foot along U.S. coastlines. This projection is equivalent to the sea level rise of the past 100 years, 1920-2020 happening in only 30 years. This is one more example of acceleration.

Making matters much more tenuous, NOAA warns: “Failing to curb future emissions (ed.- which is about where mitigation efforts stand today) could cause an additional 1.5-5.0 feet of rise for a total of 3.5-7.0 feet by the end of this century.” 5

Adaptation to Higher Sea Levels

According to John Englander, society needs a new vision of the planet. It needs to learn to “build higher and smarter.”

For example, Korea is building the first floating community for thousands of homes. Busan Metropolitan City, Korea, the second-largest city in South Korea and home to the country’s largest port is home to Oceanix Busan, a floating city prototype to house 12,000 people. The floating city will be dependent upon its own energy, water, and food without relying upon city resources. Completion date is set for 2025. The design will help regenerate marine ecosystems by promoting coral reef growth underneath the complex.

In the Netherlands, floating homes of Schoonschip in Amsterdam rise up during flood periods with utilities attached via an umbilical that absorbs movement. During flooding episodes, homes float and then settle back down to the ground able to handle 6-8 feet of sea level rise.

Finest Bay Area Development (Finnish/Estonian), Shimizu Corporation (Japanese), and Blue21 (Dutch) have plans to build Green Float Tallinn, a floating island city for 40,000 inhabitants on the Baltic Sea. The floating island will not generate waste. Resources will either be reused, recycled, or upcycled. The objective is to achieve food self-sufficiency, energy autarky, circular water systems, and carbon positivity within a closed loop system.

The Dutch floating home model is now a project under construction in the Maldives. The first block of floating homes for the Maldives Floating City development of 5,000 homes are tethered to a lagoon floor and linked together.

Denmark, the Netherlands, Germany, and the UK are all strengthening design standards for building and coastal infrastructure to protect against sea level rise according to the OECD Responding to Rising Seas report, utilizing sea walls, surge barriers, water pumps, and overflow chambers.

China is building sponge cities. The underlying principle of sponge cities is to give water enough room and enough time to drain into the soil where it falls instead of channeling it away and sequestering it in dams. Sponge cities require large green spaces. An example is the coastal city Ninbgo, where an eco-corridor on an uninhabitable post-industrial site turned the channelized river into a meandering waterway surrounded by native plants that filter water. It has become a habitat for native flora and fauna and improved water quality as well as control over flooding.

British architecture studio Grimshaw and Dutch manufacturer Concrete Valley are developing Modular Water Dwellings, floating concrete and glass houses for areas subject to flooding. The dwellings will be prefabricated in factories and used to turn waterfronts into new city neighborhoods. Solar panels will allow each dwelling to self-generate power. Prototypes are under construction.

San Francisco Bay, which has lost 90% of its wetlands, still has some of the most important coastal wetlands in the Western Hemisphere. It is working to expand and protect its wetlands, which are key to a functioning hydrology system: “Wetlands not only provide valuable habitat for fish and birds, acting as the base of the marine ecosystem, but wetlands have also been shown to be one of nature’s most efficient plant communities for capturing carbon from the atmosphere, trapping organic carbon quicker and better than forests, thus reducing carbon in the atmosphere. Coastal wetlands also help to buffer our communities from sea level rise, acting as a sponge to capture floodwaters before they reach our homes and businesses. In short, wetlands, if protected, expanded and restored, are one of the most valuable ecosystem tools for reducing the impact of climate change.” 6

Adaptation planning has never been more important. Mauna Loa, Hawaii measurements of CO2, continue a relentless upwards trajectory, causing more global warming, which nowadays should be labeled “global heating,” as sea level goes ever higher, and higher, at ever faster rates.

Mauna Loa CO2 measurements:

August 2022 @ 417.19 ppm

August 2021 @ 414.47 ppm

August 2020 @ 412.78 ppm

During the 1960s the global growth rate of CO2 averaged +0.8 ppm. Today it’s nearly three times that rate. Corr0respondingly, the rate of sea level rising of the past 30 years has more than doubled.

Since the beginnings of humanity when rubbing two sticks together was an eye-opening moment nothing compares to today’s rate of CO2 and sea level rise. Could it be that a few thousand years of the wonderful Goldilocks era not too hot, not to cold fostered complacency? Which, in turn, propagates the brand-new Age of Adaptation.

Post Script: Adaptation takes on new significance when consideration is given to the following update from a highly respected source. The following statement comes from Climate Dominoes, Publisher: Breakthrough – National Centre for Climate Restoration, Melbourne, May 2022 by David Spratt, Climate Code Red, September 28, 2022:

At just 1.2°C of global average warming, tipping points have been passed for several large Earth systems.  These include Arctic sea ice, the Greenland Ice Sheet, The Amundsen Sea glaciers in West Antarctica, the eastern Amazonian rainforest, and the world’s coral systems. The world will warm to 1.5°C by around 2030, with additional warming well beyond 1.5°C in the system after that. Yet even at the current level of warming, these systems will continue to move to qualitatively different states. In most cases, strong positive feedbacks are driving abrupt change. At higher levels of warming, the rate of change will quicken. The meme that “we have eight years to avoid 1.5°C and tipping points” should be deleted from the climate advocacy vocabulary. It is simply wrong.

Certainly, in the case of West Antarctica, the evidence continues to pile in that the Thwaites glacier is primed to trigger a much wider loss of ice mass across the Amundsen sea glacial system, for example: Thwaites ‘doomsday’ glacier could begin rapid melt with ‘just a small kick’, researchers say.

Similarly, scientists now report that Greenland ice sheet has passed a point of system stability and is now “irreversibly committed” to a significant sea-level rise regardless of twenty-first-century climate pathways.

  1. John Englander, Expert on Sea Level Rise, Talks with US Harbors About Changing Coastal Waters, July 5, 2022. [] []
  2. “Greenland, Antarctica Melting Six Times Faster Than in the 1990s”, NASA, March 16, 2020. []
  3. British Antarctic Survey, “Scientists Expose Vulnerabilities of Critical Antarctic Ice Shelf”, Phys.org, September 21, 2022. []
  4. Jason E. Box, et al, “Greenland Ice Sheet Climate Disequilibrium and Committee Sea-Level Rise”, Nature Climate Change, August 29, 2022. []
  5. 2022 Sea Level Rise Technical Report, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration). []
  6. “Expand & Restore Bay Wetlands to Fight Climate Change”, April 30, 2022. []
Robert Hunziker (MA, economic history, DePaul University) is a freelance writer and environmental journalist whose articles have been translated into foreign languages and appeared in over 50 journals, magazines, and sites worldwide. He can be contacted at: rlhunziker@gmail.com. Read other articles by Robert.