Toward a physically plausible upper bound of sea-level rise projections

Abstract

Anthropogenic sea-level rise (SLR) causes considerable risks. Designing a sound SLR risk-management strategy requires careful consideration of decision-relevant uncertainties such as the reasonable upper bound of future SLR. The recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Fourth Assessment reported a likely upper SLR bound in the year 2100 near 0.6 m (meter). More recent studies considering semi-empirical modeling approaches and kinematic constraints on glacial melting suggest a reasonable 2100 SLR upper bound of approximately 2 m. These recent studies have broken important new ground, but they largely neglect uncertainties surrounding thermal expansion (thermosteric SLR) and/or observational constraints on ocean heat uptake. Here we quantify the effects of key parametric uncertainties and observational constraints on thermosteric SLR projections using an Earth system model with a dynamic three-dimensional ocean, which provides a mechanistic representation of deep ocean processes and heat uptake. Considering these effects nearly doubles the contribution of thermosteric SLR compared to previous estimates and increases the reasonable upper bound of 2100 SLR projections by 0.25 m. As an illustrative example of the effect of overconfidence, we show how neglecting thermosteric uncertainty in projections of the SLR upper bound can considerably bias risk analysis and hence the design of adaptation strategies. For conditions close to the Port of Los Angeles, the 0.25 m increase in the reasonable upper bound can result in a flooding-risk increase by roughly three orders of magnitude. Results provide evidence that relatively minor underestimation of the upper bound of projected SLR can lead to major downward biases of future flooding risks.

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Acknowledgements

This study was partially supported by the National Science Foundation (SES-1049208) and the Penn State Center for Climate Risk Management. The authors acknowledge helpful discussions with Robert Lempert, Nancy Tuana, Patrick Applegate, Michael Oppenheimer, Gary Yohe, Richard Alley, and Don Wuebbles. All errors and opinions are ours.

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Correspondence to Ryan L. Sriver.

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Sriver, R.L., Urban, N.M., Olson, R. et al. Toward a physically plausible upper bound of sea-level rise projections. Climatic Change 115, 893–902 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10584-012-0610-6

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Keywords

  • Ensemble Member
  • Climate Sensitivity
  • Outgoing Longwave Radiation
  • Earth System Model
  • Ocean Heat Content