Using Sea Level Change as a Climate Indicator

Friday, 19 December 2014
Dallas S Masters, University of Colorado at Boulder, Aerospace Engineering Sciences, Boulder, CO, United States and R Steven Nerem, Univ of CO-Aerospace Egrg Sci, Boulder, CO, United States
Sea level rise is one the more important risks due to climate change. Multiple satellite altimeters flying on the same repeating ground track have allowed estimation of global and regional sea level for the past 20 years, and the time series has yielded information about how sea level is responding to climate change. Due to the duration, consistency, and inter-calibration of the altimeter measurements, the time series is now considered a climate data record. The time series has also shown the strong dependence of sea level on interannual signals such as the ENSO and PDO. Global mean sea level change as estimated by the altimeters is arguably one of the most sensitive indicators of climate change because it varies almost entirely due to thermal expansion/contraction and the exchange of water between the land and oceans. Contributions to the latter include melting land ice and changes in the hydrologic cycle. While thermal expansion does not vary greatly on interannual time-scales, variations in the global hydrologic cycle and land ice melt can contribute to large variations in the sea level record. Isolating and understanding the causes and scales of these variations is important in interpreting the observed global and regional sea level change, especially for decision-makers assessing risk and planning for adaptation and/or mitigation.

Since 1992, satellite altimeter measurements from the TOPEX/Poseidon and Jason missions, have been providing precise estimates of sea level change between ±66° latitude every 10 days. We have been using these measurements to monitor both global average and regional sea level change. The GRACE mission has provided monthly estimates of the time-varying gravity field for the last 10 years. These measurements can estimate variations in global ocean mass, mass changes in the polar ice sheets and mountain glaciers, as well as changes in the land surface water storage. These data sets can be used to inform us about the sea level change over most of the Earth and the causes/sources of this change. With this information, we can gauge how the Earth is responding to climate change, map the regional changes in sea level, and improve our projections of future sea level change and its impacts.

We will discuss both the benefits and challenges of using satellite-measured sea level change as a climate indicator.