Cryospheric Sciences

Ice-climate interactions

Sea Level “For Dummies”

Sea Level “For Dummies”

Looking out over the sea on a quiet day with no wind, the word “flat” would certainly pop up in your mind to describe the sea surface. However, this serene view of a flat sea surface is far from accurate at the global scale.

The apparent simplicity behind the concept of sea level hides more complex science that we hope to explain in a simple manner in today’s “For Dummies” post, which will give you the keys to understand the important aspects of past sea change, and an ability to look into and understand how sea level is a key factor in the future.

Everyone will be familiar with news stories about current sea level rise, but it can be very confusing to understand what this means in real terms; how fast it is happening and why we should care about it anyway. So to begin with, let’s have a look at what we mean by sea level?

Sea Level – It’s all about gravity!

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Image of the Week: Ice Sheets in the Climate

Image of the Week: Ice Sheets in the Climate

Ice sheets play a central role in the climate system. They store significant amounts of fresh water and are the conveyor belts for transporting snow that accumulates on land back into the oceans. The figure above shows a few of the ice-climate interactions. In the figure below (click on the figure for full resolution) we see the complete picture of the processes taking place between ice sheets, solid earth and the climate system. These interactions have an internal variability but also affect the coupled ice sheet–climate response to external forcings on time scales of months to millions of years. The inlay figure represents a typical height profile of atmospheric temperature and moisture in the troposphere.

If the current warming of the climate continues, the ice sheets will respond at a yet unknown rate, with unknown consequences for the rest of the climate system. Decisions reached at COP21 in Paris this week  may impact the future of our ice sheets and halt the current trend.


The interaction of ice sheets with the climate system. Credit: Figure 1 in Box 5.2, IPCC AR5.