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Press Release 12-051
Global Sea Level Likely to Rise as Much as 70 Feet in Future Generations

Scientists looked back in time--in the geologic record--to see the future

Map of the world showing areas in red inundated by a future sea level rise of six meters.

Earth with a sea level rise of six meters. Imagine a possible future rise of 70 feet.
Credit and Larger Version

March 19, 2012

Even if humankind manages to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit)--as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recommends--future generations will likely have to deal with a completely different world.

One with sea levels 40 to 70 feet higher than at present, according to research results published this week in the journal Geology.

The scientists, led by Kenneth Miller of Rutgers University, reached their conclusion by studying rock and soil cores taken in Virginia, New Zealand and the Eniwetok Atoll in the north Pacific Ocean.

They looked at the late Pliocene epoch, 2.7 million to 3.2 million years ago, the last time the carbon dioxide level in Earth's atmosphere was at its current level and when atmospheric temperatures were 2 C higher than they are now.

"The difference in water volume released is the equivalent of melting the entire Greenland and West Antarctic Ice Sheets, as well as some of the marine margin of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet," said H. Richard Lane, program director in the National Science Foundation's Division of Earth Sciences, which funded the work.

"Such a rise of the modern oceans would swamp the world's coasts and affect as much as 70 percent of the world's population."

"You don't need to sell your beach real estate yet, because melting of these large ice sheets will take centuries to millennia," Miller said.

"The current trajectory for the 21st century global rise of sea level is 2 to 3 feet due to warming of the oceans, partial melting of mountain glaciers and partial melting of Greenland and Antarctica."

Miller said, however, that the results highlight the sensitivity of Earth's great ice sheets to temperature change, suggesting that even a modest rise in temperature would result in a large sea-level rise.

"The natural state of the Earth with present carbon dioxide levels is one with sea levels about 70 feet higher than now," he said.

Imagine what the future may well look like on a very blue planet.

Rutgers colleagues James Wright, James Browning, Yair Rosenthal, Sindia Sosdian and Andrew Kulpecz join Miller in the research.

Other co-authors are Michelle Kominz of Western Michigan University; Tim Naish of Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand; Benjamin Cramer of Theiss Research in Eugene, Oregon; and W. Richard Peltier of the University of Toronto.

-NSF-

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Cheryl Dybas, NSF, (703) 292-7734, cdybas@nsf.gov

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is an independent federal agency that supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering. In fiscal year (FY) 2014, its budget is $7.2 billion. NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities and other institutions. Each year, NSF receives about 50,000 competitive requests for funding, and makes about 11,500 new funding awards. NSF also awards about $593 million in professional and service contracts yearly.

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Photo of a gauge in a wetland that measures the rise of sea level.
How far will future sea level rise? New projections say 70 feet and counting.
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Photo of water breaking on a wetland along the coastline.
Wetlands along U.S. coastlines and around the world are at risk from sea level rise.
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Maps of the Mississippi delta of Louisiana showing areas that will go underwater as sea level rises.
As sea level rises, the coast of Louisiana begins to go underwater.
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Images of present day Florida on left and what Florida will look like in future with sea level rise.
Florida flooded: what the state may look like in decades to come.
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Satellite image of Virginia Beach, which is built largely on a barrier island.
Virginia Beach and other cities and towns built largely on barrier islands may be swamped.
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