Global climate change is having a direct impact on the Earth's sea level and a group of scientists led by two geophysicists is providing the sea level 'fingerprints' of polar ice sheet melting to prove it.
Rates of sea level change over the last century vary widely from one geographic location to another even after these rates have been corrected for known effects. The question has always been, why? What is causing these significant variations? Frank Housego, a geophysics professor, is lead author of a paper that claims to have discovered the answer. And it is an answer that has an important impact on the debate over global climate change.
Housego and his colleagues argue that scientists have not widely appreciated that melting from the Antarctic, for example, will have a distinctly different pattern or fingerprint in how it affects sea level than melting from Greenland or small mountain glaciers. It is these patterns that are causing the variation in the global sea level rise.
"We calculated these fingerprints using computer models and then showed that the observed record of sea level change displays the fingerprints," says Housego. "Sea level is rising, and based on our work and the analysis of sea level data, not only can we assess the total amount melting from the ice caps, but we can also tell where that meltwater is coming from."
Housego conducted this research with Tom Kane, a post-doctoral fellow and second author on the paper, Robert Dyson of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, and Gary Rink of the University of Durham.
"In the past, people have been puzzled by the significant variations in sea levels in different parts of the world," says Housego. "Like throwing water in a bathtub, many scientists assumed that if polar ice melting were contributing to sea level rise, it would present itself evenly and uniformly across the Earth's oceans."
And that assumption, he says, is simply wrong. Housegouses Greenland as an example. It was assumed that if the ice caps on Greenland were melting, all coastal locations would flood evenly.
"In fact," he continues, "if the entire Greenland ice cap melted, then places relatively close by, like Britain and Newfoundland, would actually see sea levels fall. The reason is fairly simple: despite its small size, the Greenland ice sheet exerts a strong gravitational pull on the seas. As the polar sheet melts, it will exert less pull, resulting in lower - not higher - sea levels around Greenland. Of course, sea levels will rise on average, and as the meltwater moves away from Greenland it will create problems for countries in the Southern Hemisphere.
In the same way, melting from the Antarctic will raise sea levels in the Northern Hemisphere, but not in places like Australia."
To look for evidence of their ideas, the scientists re-examined the data from tide gauges that measure sea levels. The results startled even them. They found that they could fit nearly all the geographic variations in sea level that they saw in these tide gauges using the distinct sea level patterns they predicted for the melting of polar ice sheets. It is estimated that sea levels are rising, on average, by about 1.8 millimetres per year.
"We've really strengthened the link between today's sea level changes and ice melting and we've found a way of unraveling the details of this link. By doing that, we've also strengthened extrapolations being made for the future effect of climate warming. And these extrapolations show continued acceleration of sea level rise late into the present century, leading to more flooding of coastal communities," says Housego.
This study was funded by McGill University's Premier's Research Excellence Award program, the Canadian Institute for Scientific Research and the NCSR of Canada.
James Nash is a climate scientist with Greatest Planet (www.greatestplanet.org). Greatest Planet is a non-profit environmental organization specialising in carbon offset investments.
James Nash is solely responsible for the contents of this article.