, Volume 33, Issue 2, pp 151-212

The risk of sea level rise

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The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change requires nations to implement measures for adapting to rising sea level and other effects of changing climate. To decide upon an appropriate response, coastal planners and engineers must weigh the cost of these measures against the likely cost of failing to prepare, which depends on the probability of the sea rising a particular amount.

This study estimates such a probability distribution, using models employed by previous assessments, as well as the subjective assessments of twenty climate and glaciology reviewers about the values of particular model coefficients. The reviewer assumptions imply a 50 percent chance that the average global temperature will rise 2 °C, as well as a 5 percent chance that temperatures will rise 4.7 °C by 2100. The resulting impact of climate change on sea level has a 50 percent chance of exceeding 34 cm and a 1% chance of exceeding one meter by the year 2100, as well as a 3 percent chance of a 2 meter rise and a 1 percent chance of a 4 meter rise by the year 2200.

The models and assumptions employed by this study suggest that greenhouse gases have contributed 0.5 mm/yr to sea level over the last century. Tidal gauges suggest that sea level is rising about 1.8 mm/yr worldwide, and 2.5–3.0 mm/yr along most of the U.S. Coast. It is reasonable to expect that sea level in most locations will continue to rise more rapidly than the contribution from climate change alone.

We provide a set of ‘normalized’ projections which express the extent to which climate change is likely to accelerate the rate of sea level rise. Those projections suggest that there is a 65 percent chance that sea level will rise 1 mm/yr more rapidly in the next 30 years than it has been rising in the last century. Assuming that nonclimatic factors do not change, there is a 50 percent chance that global sea level will rise 45 cm, and a 1 percent chance of a 112 cm rise by the year 2100; the corresponding estimates for New York City are 55 and 122 cm.

Climate change impact assessments concerning agriculture, forests, water resources, and other noncoastal resources should also employ probability-based projections of regional climate change. Results from general circulation models usually provide neither the most likely scenario nor the full range of possible outcomes; probabilistic projections do convey this information. Moreover, probabilistic projections can make use of all the available knowledge, including the views of skeptics; the opinions of those who study ice cores, fossils, and other empirical evidence; and the insights of climate modelers, which may be as useful as the model results themselves.

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