3rd GEOSS Science and Technology Stakeholder Workshop
March 23-25, 2015, Norfolk, VA, USA

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What We Know and What We Don&srquo;t Know About Sea Level

Benjamin Hamlington, Center for Coastal Physical Oceanography, Old Dominion University, Norfolk, VA, USA

The change of sea level in response to the warming of our planet is of great interest for both scientific and socio-economic reasons. Sea level change has enormous socio-economic implications for the planet as coastal populations become more susceptible to storm surges and eventually inundation from the oceans. In addition, sea level is an essential climate variable and critical indicator of how our planet is responding to climate change. Sea level, when averaged globally, responds primarily to the amount of heat absorbed by the oceans, and the melting of land ice. Thus, many groups—climate scientists, politicians, economists, insurance companies, public utilities, coastal property owners, civil engineers, and other “stakeholders”—have a need for accurate and reliable projections of future sea level change and its regional variations.

Projecting sea level change begins with improving our understanding of past sea level change and the factors contributing to it. On a local level, the sea level problem is complex due to its multi-facetted and coupled nature, involving essentially all Earth System components, and including multiple feedbacks. In the past decade, the network of observing systems has grown to be able to measure more of the factors contributing to sea level than ever before. This has led to significant advances in our understanding of sea level change in the past, present and future, while also aiding model efforts to project future regional sea level rise. Despite this, significant gaps in our understanding remain that have important implications for our ability to prepare for climate change in the coming years. In this presentation, we take stock of what we currently know and what needs to be understood better regarding sea level rise on global and regional scales. Although the focus is on sea level, the discussion here can be similarly extended to other areas, underscoring the need for improved understanding of all essential climate variables.