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 surface level of one or more among Earth's coastal 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. Current sea level rise is mainly caused by human-induced climate change. [2] When temperatures rise, mountain glaciers and the polar ice caps melt, increasing the amount of water in water bodies. Because most of human settlement and infrastructure was built in response to a more normalized sea level with limited expected change, populations affected by climate change in connection to sea level rise will need to invest in climate adaptation to mitigate the worst effects or when populations are in extreme risk, a process of managed retreat.

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 6,378.137 km (3,963.191 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. [3]

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. [4] 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 using 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. [5] 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. [6] 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 0.146 m above chart datum and 1.304 m below the average sea level. [7] 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

Global sea level during the Last Glacial Period Global sea levels during the last Ice Age.jpg
Global sea level during the Last Glacial Period
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

Global sea level rise from 1880 to 2015. Sea Level Change 1880 to 2015.png
Global sea level rise from 1880 to 2015.

Between 1901 and 2018, the globally averaged sea level rose by 15–25 cm (6–10 in), or 1–2 mm per year on average. [14] This rate is accelerating, and the sea levels are now rising by 3.7 mm (0.146 inches) per year. [15] This is caused by human-induced climate change, as it continually heats (and therefore expands) the ocean and melts land-based ice sheets and glaciers. [16] Over the period between 1993 and 2018, the thermal expansion of water contributed 42% to sea level rise (sometimes abbreviated as SLR in the scientific literature); melting of temperate glaciers, 21%; Greenland, 15%; and Antarctica, 8%. [17] :1576 Because sea level rise lags changes in Earth temperature, it will continue to accelerate between now and 2050 purely in response to warming which has already occurred: [18] whether it continues to accelerate after that is dependent on the human greenhouse gas emissions. Even if sea level rise does not accelerate, it will continue for a very long time: over the next 2000 years, it is projected to amount to 2–3 m (7–10 ft) if global warming is limited to 1.5 °C (2.7 °F), to 2–6 m (7–20 ft) if it peaks at 2 °C (3.6 °F) and to 19–22 metres (62–72 ft) if it peaks at 5 °C (9.0 °F). [15] :21

The rising seas pose both a direct risk of flooding unprotected areas and indirect threats of higher storm surges, king tides, and tsunamis (particularly in the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans). They are also associated with the highly detrimental second-order effects such as the loss of coastal ecosystems like mangroves, losses in crop production due to freshwater salinization of groundwater and irrigation water or the disruption of sea trade due to damaged ports. [19] [20] [21] Globally, just the projected sea level rise by 2050 will expose places currently inhabited by tens of millions of people to annual flooding, or force them under the water line during high tide, and this can increase to hundreds of millions in the latter decades of the century if greenhouse gas emissions are not reduced drastically. [22] While modest increases in sea level are likely to be offset when cities adapt by constructing sea walls or through relocating people, [23] many coastal areas have large population growth, which results in more people at risk from sea level rise. Later in the century, millions of people will be affected in cities such as Miami, Rio de Janeiro, Osaka and Shanghai under the warming of 3 °C (5.4 °F), which is close to the current trajectory. [21] [24]

While the rise in sea levels ultimately impacts every coastal and island population on Earth, [25] [26] it does not occur uniformly due to local factors like tides, currents, storms, tectonic effects and land subsidence. Moreover, the differences in resilience and adaptive capacity of ecosystems, sectors, and countries again mean that the impacts will be highly variable in time and space. [27] For instance, sea level rise along US coasts (and along the US East Coast in particular) is already higher than the global average, and it is expected to be 2 to 3 times greater than the global average by the end of the century. [28] [29] At the same time, Asia will be the region where sea level rise would impact the most people: eight Asian countries – Bangladesh, China, India, Indonesia, Japan, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam – account for 70% of the global population exposed to sea level rise and land subsidence. Altogether, out of the 20 countries with the greatest exposure to sea level rise, 12 are in Asia. [30] Finally, the greatest near-term impact on human populations will occur in the low-lying Caribbean and Pacific islands – many of those would be rendered uninhabitable by sea level rise later this century. [31]

Societies can adapt to sea level rise in three different ways: implement managed retreat, accommodate coastal change, or protect against sea level rise through hard-construction practices like seawalls or soft approaches such as dune rehabilitation and beach nourishment. Sometimes these adaptation strategies go hand in hand, but at other times choices have to be made among different strategies. [32] For instance, a managed retreat strategy is difficult if the population in the area is quickly increasing: this is a particularly acute problem for Africa, where the population of low-lying coastal areas is projected to increase by around 100 million people within the next 40 years. [33] Poorer nations may also struggle to implement the same approaches to adapt to sea level rise as richer states, and sea level rise at some locations may be compounded by other environmental issues, such as subsidence in so-called sinking cities. [34] Coastal ecosystems typically adapt to rising sea levels by moving inland; however, they might not always be able to do so, due to natural or artificial barriers. [35]

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. [36]

See also

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Geodesy</span> 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. The job title is geodesist or geodetic surveyor.

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.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Geoid</span> Ocean shape without winds and tides

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.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Physical geodesy</span> Study of the physical properties of the Earths gravity field

Physical geodesy is the study of the physical properties of Earth's gravity and its potential field, with a view to their application in geodesy.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Height</span> 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". For example, "Christopher Columbus is 5 foot 2 inches in vertical height."

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Storm surge</span> Rise of water associated with a low-pressure weather system

A storm surge, storm flood, tidal surge, or storm tide is a coastal flood or tsunami-like phenomenon of rising water commonly associated with low-pressure weather systems, such as cyclones. It is measured as the rise in water level above the normal tidal level, and does not include waves.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Post-glacial rebound</span> Rise of land masses after glacial period

Post-glacial rebound is the rise of land masses after the removal of the huge weight of ice sheets during the last glacial period, which had caused isostatic depression. Post-glacial rebound and isostatic depression are phases of glacial isostasy, the deformation of the Earth's crust in response to changes in ice mass distribution. The direct raising effects of post-glacial rebound are readily apparent in parts of Northern Eurasia, Northern America, Patagonia, and Antarctica. However, through the processes of ocean siphoning and continental levering, the effects of post-glacial rebound on sea level are felt globally far from the locations of current and former ice sheets.

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.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Chart datum</span> 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, in which case it is also known as a tidal datum. 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. A chart datum is a type of vertical datum and must not be confused with the horizontal datum for the chart.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Ordnance datum</span> 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:

<span class="mw-page-title-main">National Geodetic Vertical Datum of 1929</span> 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).

<span class="mw-page-title-main">North American Vertical Datum of 1988</span> 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.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Vertical datum</span> Reference surface for vertical positions

In geodesy, surveying, hydrography and navigation, vertical datum or altimetric datum, is a reference coordinate surface used 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.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Ocean surface topography</span> Shape of the ocean surface relative to the geoid

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> Vertical datum used in Germany

Normalhöhennull or NHN is a vertical datum used in Germany.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Past sea level</span> Sea level variations over geological time scales

Global or eustatic sea level has fluctuated significantly over Earth's history. The main factors affecting sea level are the amount and volume of available water and the shape and volume of the ocean basins. The primary influences on water volume are the temperature of the seawater, which affects density, and the amounts of water retained in other reservoirs like rivers, aquifers, lakes, glaciers, polar ice caps and sea ice. Over geological timescales, changes in the shape of the oceanic basins and in land/sea distribution affect sea level. In addition to eustatic changes, local changes in sea level are caused by tectonic uplift and subsidence.

Vertical position or vertical location, also known as vertical level or simply level, 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.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Tidal flooding</span> Temporary inundation of low-lying areas during exceptionally high tide events

Tidal flooding, also known as sunny day flooding or nuisance flooding, is the temporary inundation of low-lying areas, especially streets, during exceptionally high tide events, such as at full and new moons. The highest tides of the year may be known as the king tide, with the month varying by location. These kinds of floods tend not to be a high risk to property or human safety, but further stress coastal infrastructure in low lying areas.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Vertical Offshore Reference Frames</span> UK and Irish hydrographic vertical datum

Vertical Offshore Reference Frames (VORF) is a set of high resolution surfaces, published and maintained by the UK Hydrographic Office, which together define a vertical datum for hydrographic surveying and charting in the United Kingdom and Ireland. The following surfaces are included:

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.

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