The Rise of Global Mean Sea Level as an Indication of Climate Change

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Science  15 Jan 1982:
Vol. 215, Issue 4530, pp. 287-289
DOI: 10.1126/science.215.4530.287


Rising mean sea level, it is proposed, is a significant indicator of global climate change. The principal factors that can have contributed to the observed increases of global mean sea level in recent decades are thermal expansion of the oceans and the discharge of polar ice sheets. Calculations indicate that thermal expansion cannot be the sole factor responsible for the observed rise in sea level over the last 40 years; significant discharges of polar ice must also be occurring. Global warming, due in some degree presumably to increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide, has been opposed by the extraction of heat necessary to melt the discharged ice. During the past 40 years more than 50,000 cubic kilometers of ice has been discharged and has melted, reducing the surface warming that might otherwise have occurred by as much as a factor of 2. The transfer of mass from the polar regions to a thin spherical shell covering all the oceans should have increased the earth's moment of inertia and correspondingly reduced the speed of rotation by about 1.5 parts in 108. This accounts for about three quarters of the observed fractional reduction in the earth's angular velocity since 1940. Monitoring of global mean sea level, ocean surface temperatures, and the earth's speed of rotation should be complemented by monitoring of the polar ice sheets, as is now possible by satellite altimetry. All parts of the puzzle need to be examined in order that a consistent picture emerge.

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