How To Slow Sea-Level Rise

Science shows that altering the course of climate change is possible in this century, but countries will need to do more.

Zoom image: globe halfway under water globe halfway under water.

Research from a large international community of scientists predicts that sea-level rise from the melting of ice, among the most devastating effects of rising global temperatures, could be halved this century.

But there’s a catch: That’s only if the world can meet the Paris Agreement target of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Refreshing the picture on sea-level rise

The study, which was published in Nature, utilized a massive set of climate and ice models, combining nearly 900 simulations from 38 international groups, using statistical techniques.

It predicts that if the world can limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, Greenland Ice Sheet losses would fall by 70%, and glacier losses by half, relative to projections based on countries’ current emissions pledges.

“This study is important because the statistical techniques used—called emulation—allowed us to explore many more different futures than possible with the numerical ice sheet and glacier models,” says University at Buffalo climate scientist Sophie Nowicki, Empire Innovation Professor in the Department of Geology and the paper’s second author. The study’s findings helped inform the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Sixth Assessment Report—the international community’s definitive report on the status of climate change—which Nowicki also contributed to as a lead author for a chapter on ocean, cryosphere and sea-level change.

Giving world leaders the information they need to act now

Glaciers and ice sheets are currently responsible for around half of global sea-level rise, with most of the rest arising from expansion of the oceans as they warm. Previous predictions had used older emissions scenarios and could not explore uncertainty about the future as thoroughly due to the limited number of simulations. This statistics-based study updates the scenarios and combines all sources of land ice into a more complete picture.

The findings couldn’t come soon enough, as time to slow the effects of climate change is running out. As Nowicki points out, the fate of future generations hangs in the balance. “Since my children were born in the last 10 years, the rate of sea-level rise has accelerated faster than over the 105-year lifetime of my grandmother,” she says. “But we can slow down sea-level rise if we act now.”