Sea-Level Rise by 2100

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Science  20 Dec 2013:
Vol. 342, Issue 6165, pp. 1445
DOI: 10.1126/science.342.6165.1445-a

In his News and Analysis piece reporting on the newly released fifth assessment report (AR5) by Working Group I (WGI) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) (“A Stronger IPCC Report,” 4 October, p. 23), R. A. Kerr highlights three fundamental conclusions about climate change that were assessed with equal or greater confidence than in previous IPCC reports. He also points to three “contentious points” on which he states that the AR5 “took a moderate line.” Kerr includes sea-level projections among these points, and reports “a rise of 40 to 60 centimeters by late in the century and a worst case of 1 meter by 2100, [which is] higher than in 2007 but far below the meter or two of sea-level rise that some expect.”

As the authors of the IPCC WGI AR5 chapter on “Sea-Level Change,” we wish to clarify that for the highest emission scenario considered (RCP8.5), the AR5 reported a “likely” range of 0.45 to 0.82 m for sea-level projections for the late 21st century (average over 2081 to 2100) and of 0.52 to 0.98 m by 2100. The difference in sea level between these two periods is large because in 2081 to 2100, the “likely” rate of rise is 8 to 16 mm per year, which is up to about 10 times the average rate of rise during the 20th century.

In the calibrated uncertainty language of the IPCC, this assessed likelihood means that there is roughly a one-third probability that sea-level rise by 2100 may lie outside the “likely” range. That is, the AR5 did not exclude the possibility of higher sea levels. However, we concluded that sea levels substantially higher than the “likely” range would only occur in the 21st century if the sections of the Antarctic ice sheet that have bases below sea level were to collapse. We determined with medium confidence that “this additional contribution would not exceed several 10ths of a meter of sea-level rise during the 21st century.” We could not define this possible contribution more precisely because “there is currently insufficient evidence to evaluate the probability of specific levels above the assessed ‘likely’ range.”

The upper boundary of the AR5 “likely” range should not be misconstrued as a worst-case upper limit, as was done in Kerr's story as well as elsewhere in the media and blogosphere. For policy and planning purposes, it may be necessary to adopt particular numbers as an upper limit, but according to our assessment, the current state of scientific knowledge cannot give a precise guide.


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