Sea Level Rise

Global average sea levels have risen 7-8 inches since 1900, and scientists are highly confident they will continue to rise. Any amount of global sea level rise will increase the frequency, magnitude, and duration of high-tide flooding.

Changes in local sea level result from of a combination of global, regional, and local change.

At the global scale, sea level is rising. Measured at tide gauges on every continent and by satellites on orbit, global average sea level has risen about 7 to 8 inches since 1900, with about 3 of those inches occurring since 1993.1 The observed global increase is due to melting of glaciers and ice sheets on land and the thermal expansion of ocean water as it warms. In regions where land is rising faster than sea level (due to tectonic forces, for instance, as in Southeast Alaska), local sea level change is decreasing. In other regions, where land is subsiding (often a result of pumping water and oil from underground), local sea level is increasing faster than the global average.

Graphic explaining sources of sea level change.

The level of the sea at the shoreline is determined by factors that operate on a great range of time scales. On the time scale of decades to centuries, some of the largest influences on the average levels of the sea are linked to climate and climate change processes.

Global sea level rise scenarios

Scientists are highly confident global sea level will continue to rise between about 1 and 8 feet by 2100.2 Oceanographers and climatologists developed a set of six global sea level rise scenarios that reflect different assumptions about the degree to which ocean warming and ice sheet loss will affect the rate and magnitude of global sea level rise. Choices the world makes about emissions will also influence sea level. 

The table below, adapted from Table 5 in Global and Regional Sea Level Rise Scenarios for the United States, shows estimated total global average sea level rise by the indicated years for each of the six scenarios. All values are in inches.

Scenario 2000 2020 2040 2060 2080 2100
Low 0.0 2.4 5.1 7.5 9.8 11.8
Intermediate-Low 0.0 3.1 7.1 11.4 15.7 19.7
Intermediate 0.0 3.9 9.8 17.7 28.0 39.4
Intermediate-High 0.0 3.9 11.8 23.6 39.4 59.1
High 0.0 4.3 14.2 30.3 51.2 78.7
Extreme 0.0 4.3 16.1 35.4 63.0 98.4

  

Regional and local sea level changes

Map showing regional trends in sea level

The map above illustrates regional trends in sea level, with arrows representing the direction and magnitude of change.

At the regional scale, sea level is influenced by ocean currents, wind patterns, and melt water from glaciers and the ice sheets on Greenland and Antarctica. On smaller scales, environmental factors such as shifts in ocean circulation patterns, changes in Earth's gravitational field and rotation, vertical land movements, sediment compaction, groundwater and fossil fuel withdrawals, and other nonclimatic factors also influence the direction, rate, and magnitude of local sea level changes. For example, local sea level is rising faster than the global average in Norfolk, Virginia, and Grand Isle, Louisiana because the land in those locations is sinking. In other places—Neah Bay, Washington, and Kodiak Island, Alaska to name two—local sea level is falling because the land is rising faster than the sea. 

To check estimated rates of regional sea level change, try the United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) Sea Level Change Curve Calculator. Additionally, NOAA's Office of Coastal Management's Sea Level Rise Viewer offers a Local Scenarios tab to help users visualize projected changes in their communities. A tutorial is available to walk you through using the Local Scenarios feature.

Choosing a sea level rise scenario based on risk tolerance

Map showing the relative risk that physical changes will occur as sea level rises in the Southeast U.S.

This map shows the Coastal Vulnerability Index, a representation of the relative risk that physical changes will occur along portions of the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic coasts as sea level rises.

 

For projects near a coast, one approach to determining which sea level rise scenario is most appropriate is to evaluate the tolerance for risk associated with the project. In general, large, infrastructure-intensive projects that are expected to last for many decades have a low tolerance for risk. Conversely, smaller, less complex projects, or those that are unlikely to last more than a decade or so, have a higher tolerance for risk. Considering scenarios in the context of risk tolerance helps to improve transparency and credibility.

  • For projects involving structures expected to have a long lifetime, where a loss would be catastrophic, or where there is limited flexibility for adaptation, there is little tolerance for risk, and the highest scenarios may be appropriate. Examples include power plants, ports, hospitals, and refuges for endangered species.
  • Where local mean sea level is rising, the intermediate-low scenario should be considered as a minimum for project planning. Calculating the number of years a project is likely to be useful before being impacted by flooding or inundation can help decision makers evaluate tolerance for risk.
  • Where a project is expected to have a short life span, require little infrastructure, or have the flexibility to make alternate choices, the tolerance for risk is relatively high, and the lowest scenarios may be appropriate. Examples of projects that may fall into this category include bike paths, golf courses, and parks.
  • Where local relative sea level is falling, risk of coastal flooding is decreasing, so the use of the lowest scenario may be appropriate.
Banner Image Credit
The Bayside Picnic Area on Assateague Island National Seashore off the coast of Maryland after Hurricane Sandy, 30 October, 2012. By National Park Service Climate Change Response (Sea Level Rise). Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Last modified
6 April 2018 - 1:21pm