Sea level

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This marker indicating sea level is situated between Jerusalem and the Dead Sea. Israel Sea Level BW 1.JPG
This marker indicating sea level is situated between Jerusalem and the Dead Sea.

Mean sea level (MSL) (often shortened to sea level) is an average level of the surface of one or more of Earth's bodies of water from which heights such as elevation may be measured. The global MSL is a type of vertical datum  a standardised geodetic datum  that is used, for example, as a chart datum in cartography and marine navigation, or, in aviation, as the standard sea level at which atmospheric pressure is measured to calibrate altitude and, consequently, aircraft flight levels. A common and relatively straightforward mean sea-level standard is instead the midpoint between a mean low and mean high tide at a particular location. [1]

Contents

Sea levels can be affected by many factors and are known to have varied greatly over geological time scales. However, 20th century and current millennium sea level rise is presumed to be caused by climate change, [2] and careful measurement of variations in MSL can offer insights into ongoing climate change. [3]

The term above sea level generally refers to above mean sea level (AMSL). The term APSL means Above Present Sea Level, comparing sea levels in the past with the level today.

Earth's radius at sea level is 6378.137 km (3963.191 mi) at the equator. It is 6,356.752 km (3,949.903 mi) at the poles and 6,371.001 km (3,958.756 mi) on average. [4]

Measurement

Sea level measurements from 23 long tide gauge records in geologically stable environments show a rise of around 200 millimetres (7.9 in) during the 20th century (2 mm/year). Recent Sea Level Rise.png
Sea level measurements from 23 long tide gauge records in geologically stable environments show a rise of around 200 millimetres (7.9 in) during the 20th century (2 mm/year).

Precise determination of a "mean sea level" is difficult because of the many factors that affect sea level. [5] Instantaneous sea level varies quite a lot on several scales of time and space. This is because the sea is in constant motion, affected by the tides, wind, atmospheric pressure, local gravitational differences, temperature, salinity and so forth. The easiest way this may be calculated is by selecting a location and calculating the mean sea level at that point and use it as a datum. For example, a period of 19 years of hourly level observations may be averaged and used to determine the mean sea level at some measurement point.

Still-water level or still-water sea level (SWL) is the level of the sea with motions such as wind waves averaged out. [6] Then MSL implies the SWL further averaged over a period of time such that changes due to, e.g., the tides, also have zero mean. Global MSL refers to a spatial average over the entire ocean.

One often measures the values of MSL in respect to the land; hence a change in relative MSL can result from a real change in sea level, or from a change in the height of the land on which the tide gauge operates. In the UK, the Ordnance Datum (the 0 metres height on UK maps) is the mean sea level measured at Newlyn in Cornwall between 1915 and 1921. [7] Before 1921, the vertical datum was MSL at the Victoria Dock, Liverpool. Since the times of the Russian Empire, in Russia and its other former parts, now independent states, the sea level is measured from the zero level of Kronstadt Sea-Gauge. In Hong Kong, "mPD" is a surveying term meaning "metres above Principal Datum" and refers to height of 1.230m below the average sea level. In France, the Marégraphe in Marseilles measures continuously the sea level since 1883 and offers the longest collated data about the sea level. It is used for a part of continental Europe and the main part of Africa as the official sea level. Spain uses the reference to measure heights below or above sea level at Alicante, and another European vertical elevation reference (European Vertical Reference System) is to the Amsterdam Peil elevation, which dates back to the 1690s.

Satellite altimeters have been making precise measurements of sea level [8] since the launch of TOPEX/Poseidon in 1992. A joint mission of NASA and CNES, TOPEX/Poseidon was followed by Jason-1 in 2001 and the Ocean Surface Topography Mission on the Jason-2 satellite in 2008.

Height above mean sea level

Height above mean sea level (AMSL) is the elevation (on the ground) or altitude (in the air) of an object, relative to the average sea level datum. It is also used in aviation, where some heights are recorded and reported with respect to mean sea level (MSL) (contrast with flight level), and in the atmospheric sciences, and land surveying. An alternative is to base height measurements on an ellipsoid of the entire Earth, which is what systems such as GPS do. In aviation, the ellipsoid known as World Geodetic System 84 is increasingly used to define heights; however, differences up to 100 metres (328 feet)[ citation needed ] exist between this ellipsoid height and mean tidal height. The alternative is to use a geoid-based vertical datum such as NAVD88 and the global EGM96 (part of WGS84).

When referring to geographic features such as mountains on a topographic map, variations in elevation are shown by contour lines. The elevation of a mountain denotes the highest point or summit and is typically illustrated as a small circle on a topographic map with the AMSL height shown in metres, feet or both.

In the rare case that a location is below sea level, the elevation AMSL is negative. For one such case, see Amsterdam Airport Schiphol.

Difficulties in use

Ocean
Reference ellipsoid
Local plumb line
Continent
Geoid Geoida.svg

To extend this definition far from the sea means comparing the local height of the mean sea surface with a "level" reference surface, or geodetic datum, called the geoid. In a state of rest or absence of external forces, the mean sea level would coincide with this geoid surface, being an equipotential surface of the Earth's gravitational field which, in itself, does not conform to a simple sphere or ellipsoid and exhibits measurable variations such as those measured by NASA's GRACE satellites to determine mass changes in ice-sheets and aquifers. In reality, this ideal does not occur due to ocean currents, air pressure variations, temperature and salinity variations, etc., not even as a long-term average. The location-dependent, but persistent in time, separation between mean sea level and the geoid is referred to as (mean) ocean surface topography. It varies globally in a range of ± 2 m.

Dry land

Sea level sign seen on cliff (circled in red) at Badwater Basin, Death Valley National Park BadwaterSL.JPG
Sea level sign seen on cliff (circled in red) at Badwater Basin, Death Valley National Park

Several terms are used to describe the changing relationships between sea level and dry land.

The melting of glaciers at the end of ice ages is one example of eustatic sea level rise. The subsidence of land due to the withdrawal of groundwater is an isostatic cause of relative sea level rise.

Paleoclimatologists can track sea level by examining the rocks deposited along coasts that are very tectonically stable, like the east coast of North America. Areas like volcanic islands are experiencing relative sea level rise as a result of isostatic cooling of the rock which causes the land to sink.

On other planets that lack a liquid ocean, planetologists can calculate a "mean altitude" by averaging the heights of all points on the surface. This altitude, sometimes referred to as a "sea level" or zero-level elevation, serves equivalently as a reference for the height of planetary features.

Change

Local and eustatic

Water cycles between ocean, atmosphere and glaciers Mass balance atmospheric circulation.png
Water cycles between ocean, atmosphere and glaciers

Local mean sea level (LMSL) is defined as the height of the sea with respect to a land benchmark, averaged over a period of time (such as a month or a year) long enough that fluctuations caused by waves and tides are smoothed out. One must adjust perceived changes in LMSL to account for vertical movements of the land, which can be of the same order (mm/yr) as sea level changes. Some land movements occur because of isostatic adjustment of the mantle to the melting of ice sheets at the end of the last ice age. The weight of the ice sheet depresses the underlying land, and when the ice melts away the land slowly rebounds. Changes in ground-based ice volume also affect local and regional sea levels by the readjustment of the geoid and true polar wander. Atmospheric pressure, ocean currents and local ocean temperature changes can affect LMSL as well.

Eustatic sea level change (as opposed to local change) results in an alteration to the global sea levels due to changes in either the volume of water in the world's oceans or net changes in the volume of the oceanic basins. [12]

Short-term and periodic changes

Melting glaciers are causing a change in sea level Glaciers and Sea Level Rise (8742463970).jpg
Melting glaciers are causing a change in sea level

There are many factors which can produce short-term (a few minutes to 14 months) changes in sea level. Two major mechanisms are causing sea level to rise. First, shrinking land ice, such as mountain glaciers and polar ice sheets, is releasing water into the oceans. Second, as ocean temperatures rise, the warmer water expands. [13]

Periodic sea level changes
Diurnal and semidiurnal astronomical tides12–24 h P0.2–10+ m
Long-period tides  
Rotational variations (Chandler wobble)14-month P
Meteorological and oceanographic fluctuations
Atmospheric pressureHours to months−0.7 to 1.3 m
Winds (storm surges)1–5 daysUp to 5 m
Evaporation and precipitation (may also follow long-term pattern)Days to weeks 
Ocean surface topography (changes in water density and currents)Days to weeksUp to 1 m
El Niño/southern oscillation 6 mo every 5–10 yrUp to 0.6 m
Seasonal variations
Seasonal water balance among oceans (Atlantic, Pacific, Indian)  
Seasonal variations in slope of water surface  
River runoff/floods2 months1 m
Seasonal water density changes (temperature and salinity)6 months0.2 m
Seiches
Seiches (standing waves)Minutes to hoursUp to 2 m
Earthquakes
Tsunamis (generate catastrophic long-period waves)HoursUp to 10 m
Abrupt change in land levelMinutesUp to 10 m

Recent changes

For at least the last 100 years, sea level has been rising at an average rate of about 1.8 mm (0.07 in) per year. [14] Most of this rise can be attributed to the increase in temperature of the sea and the resulting slight thermal expansion of the upper 500 metres (1,640 feet) of sea water. Additional contributions, as much as one-quarter of the total, come from water sources on land, such as melting snow and glaciers and extraction of groundwater for irrigation and other agricultural and human uses. [15]

Aviation

Pilots can estimate height above sea level with an altimeter set to a defined barometric pressure. Generally, the pressure used to set the altimeter is the barometric pressure that would exist at MSL in the region being flown over. This pressure is referred to as either QNH or "altimeter" and is transmitted to the pilot by radio from air traffic control (ATC) or an automatic terminal information service (ATIS). Since the terrain elevation is also referenced to MSL, the pilot can estimate height above ground by subtracting the terrain altitude from the altimeter reading. Aviation charts are divided into boxes and the maximum terrain altitude from MSL in each box is clearly indicated. Once above the transition altitude, the altimeter is set to the international standard atmosphere (ISA) pressure at MSL which is 1013.25 hPa or 29.92 inHg. [16]

See also

Related Research Articles

Geodesy Science of the geometric shape, orientation in space, and gravitational field of Earth

Geodesy is the Earth science of accurately measuring and understanding Earth's figure, orientation in space, and gravity. The field also incorporates studies of how these properties change over time and equivalent measurements for other planets. Geodynamical phenomena, including crustal motion, tides and polar motion, can be studied by designing global and national control networks, applying space geodesy and terrestrial geodetic techniques and relying on datums and coordinate systems.

Altitude or height is a distance measurement, usually in the vertical or "up" direction, between a reference datum and a point or object. The exact definition and reference datum varies according to the context. Although the term altitude is commonly used to mean the height above sea level of a location, in geography the term elevation is often preferred for this usage.

Geoid Shape that the ocean surface would take under the influence of the gravity and rotation of Earth alone

The geoid is the shape that the ocean surface would take under the influence of the gravity of Earth, including gravitational attraction and Earth's rotation, if other influences such as winds and tides were absent. This surface is extended through the continents. According to Gauss, who first described it, it is the "mathematical figure of the Earth", a smooth but irregular surface whose shape results from the uneven distribution of mass within and on the surface of Earth. It can be known only through extensive gravitational measurements and calculations. Despite being an important concept for almost 200 years in the history of geodesy and geophysics, it has been defined to high precision only since advances in satellite geodesy in the late 20th century.

Height Measure of vertical distance

Height is measure of vertical distance, either vertical extent or vertical position . For example, "The height of that building is 50 m" or "The height of an airplane in-flight is about 10,000 m".

Satellite geodesy

Satellite geodesy is geodesy by means of artificial satellites—the measurement of the form and dimensions of Earth, the location of objects on its surface and the figure of the Earth's gravity field by means of artificial satellite techniques. It belongs to the broader field of space geodesy. Traditional astronomical geodesy is not commonly considered a part of satellite geodesy, although there is considerable overlap between the techniques.

Tectonic uplift is the geologic uplift of Earth's surface that is attributed to plate tectonics. While isostatic response is important, an increase in the mean elevation of a region can only occur in response to tectonic processes of crustal thickening, changes in the density distribution of the crust and underlying mantle, and flexural support due to the bending of rigid lithosphere.

Elevation Height of a geographic location above a fixed reference point

The elevation of a geographic location is its height above or below a fixed reference point, most commonly a reference geoid, a mathematical model of the Earth's sea level as an equipotential gravitational surface . The term elevation is mainly used when referring to points on the Earth's surface, while altitude or geopotential height is used for points above the surface, such as an aircraft in flight or a spacecraft in orbit, and depth is used for points below the surface.

In aviation, atmospheric sciences and broadcasting, a height above ground level is a height measured with respect to the underlying ground surface. This is as opposed to height above mean sea level, height above ellipsoid, or height above average terrain. In other words, these expressions indicate where the "zero level" or "reference altitude" - the vertical datum - is located.

Benchmark (surveying)

The term benchmark, bench mark, or survey benchmark originates from the chiseled horizontal marks that surveyors made in stone structures, into which an angle-iron could be placed to form a "bench" for a leveling rod, thus ensuring that a leveling rod could be accurately repositioned in the same place in the future. These marks were usually indicated with a chiseled arrow below the horizontal line.

Chart datum Level of water from which depths displayed on a nautical chart are measured

A chart datum is the water level surface serving as origin of depths displayed on a nautical chart. A chart datum is generally derived from some tidal phase. Common chart datums are lowest astronomical tide (LAT) and mean lower low water (MLLW). In non-tidal areas, e.g. the Baltic Sea, mean sea level (MSL) is used.

Ordnance datum Vertical datum used as the basis for deriving altitudes on maps

In the British Isles, an ordnance datum or OD is a vertical datum used by an ordnance survey as the basis for deriving altitudes on maps. A spot height may be expressed as AOD for "above ordnance datum". Usually mean sea level (MSL) is used for the datum. In particular:

The orthometric height is the vertical distance H along the plumb line from a point of interest to a reference surface known as the geoid, the vertical datum that approximates mean sea level. Orthometric height is one of the scientific formalizations of a laypersons' "height above sea level", along with other types of heights in Geodesy.

Height above mean sea level is a measure of the vertical distance of a location in reference to a historic mean sea level taken as a vertical datum. In geodesy, it is formalized as orthometric heights.

National Geodetic Vertical Datum of 1929 Vertical datum in the United States

The National Geodetic Vertical Datum of 1929 is the official name since 1973 of the vertical datum established for vertical control surveying in the United States of America by the General Adjustment of 1929. Originally known as Sea Level Datum of 1929, NGVD 29 was determined and published by the National Geodetic Survey and used to measure the elevation of a point above and depression below mean sea level (MSL).

North American Vertical Datum of 1988 Vertical datum for orthometric heights

The North American Vertical Datum of 1988 is the vertical datum for orthometric heights established for vertical control surveying in the United States of America based upon the General Adjustment of the North American Datum of 1988.

Vertical datum Reference surface for vertical positions

In geodesy, surveying, hydrography and navigation, vertical datum or altimetric datum, is a reference surface for vertical positions, such as the elevations of Earth-bound features and altitudes of satellite orbits and in aviation. In planetary science, vertical datums are also known as zero-elevation surface or zero-level reference.

Ocean surface topography or sea surface topography, also called ocean dynamic topography, are highs and lows on the ocean surface, similar to the hills and valleys of Earth's land surface depicted on a topographic map. These variations are expressed in terms of average sea surface height (SSH) relative to Earth's geoid. The main purpose of measuring ocean surface topography is to understand the large-scale ocean circulation.

<i>Normalhöhennull</i>

Normalhöhennull or NHN is a vertical datum used in Germany.

Altimeter setting is the value of the atmospheric pressure used to adjust the sub-scale of a pressure altimeter so that it indicates the height of an aircraft above a known reference surface. This reference can be the mean sea level pressure (QNH); the pressure at the nearby surface airport (QFE); or the pressure level of 1,013.25 hectopascals which gives pressure altitude and is used to maintain one of the standard flight levels.

Vertical position or vertical location is a position along a vertical direction above or below a given vertical datum. Vertical distance or vertical separation is the distance between two vertical positions. Many vertical coordinates exist for expressing vertical position: depth, height, altitude, elevation, etc.

References

  1. What is "Mean Sea Level"? (Proudman Oceanographic Laboratory).
  2. USGCRP (2017). "Climate Science Special Report. Chapter 12: Sea Level Rise. Key finding 2". science2017.globalchange.gov: 1–470. Retrieved 27 December 2018.
  3. "The strange science of melting ice sheets: three things you didn't know". The Guardian . 12 September 2018.
  4. "Earth Radius by Latitude Calculator".
  5. US National Research Council, Bulletin of the National Research Council 1932 page 270
  6. "Still-water level - AMS Glossary". glossary.ametsoc.org.
  7. "Ordnance Survey Benchmark locator" . Retrieved 21 December 2021.
  8. Glazman, Roman E; Greysukh, Alexander; Zlotnicki, Victor (1994). "Evaluating models of sea state bias in satellite altimetry". Journal of Geophysical Research. 99 (C6): 12581. Bibcode:1994JGR....9912581G. doi:10.1029/94JC00478. Roman Glazman Greysukh, A. M., Zlotnicki, V.
  9. Jackson, Julia A., ed. (1987). "Relative rise in sea level". Glossary of geology (Fourth ed.). Alexandria, Virginia. ISBN   0922152349.
  10. Jackson, Julia A., ed. (1987). "Eustatic". Glossary of geology (Fourth ed.). Alexandria, Virginia. ISBN   0922152349.
  11. Jackson, Julia A., ed. (1987). "Steric". Glossary of geology (Fourth ed.). Alexandria, Virginia. ISBN   0922152349.
  12. "Eustatic sea level". Oilfield Glossary. Schlumberger Limited. Retrieved 10 June 2011.
  13. "Global Warming Effects on Sea Level". www.climatehotmap.org. Retrieved 2 December 2016.
  14. Bruce C. Douglas (1997). "Global Sea Rise: A Redetermination". Surveys in Geophysics. 18 (2/3): 279–292. Bibcode:1997SGeo...18..279D. doi:10.1023/A:1006544227856. S2CID   128387917.
  15. Bindoff, N.L.; Willebrand, J.; Artale, V.; Cazenave, A.; Gregory, J.; Gulev, S.; Hanawa, K.; Le Quéré, C.; Levitus, S.; Nojiri, Y.; Shum, C.K.; Talley, L.D.; Unnikrishnan, A. (2007). "Observations: Oceanic Climate Change and Sea Level" (PDF). In Solomon, S.; Qin, D.; Manning, M.; Chen, Z.; Marquis, M.; Averyt, K.B.; Tignor, M.; Miller, H.L. (eds.). Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Cambridge University Press.
  16. US Federal Aviation Administration, Code of Federal Regulations Sec. 91.121