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Proceedings of OceanObs'09: Sustained Ocean Observations and Information for Society

COMMUNITY WHITE PAPER10.5270/OceanObs09.cwp.65

Observations of Sea Level Change: What Have We Learned and What Are the Remaining Challenges?

R.S. Nerem(1), D.P. Chambers(2), E. Leuliette(3), G.T. Mitchum(2), M. Merrifield(4), J. Willis(5)

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With the launch of TOPEX/Poseidon (T/P) in 1992, a new era for observing sea level change was initiated. With the subsequent launch of Jason-1 (2001) and Jason-2 (2008), we now have a precise 17-year continuous record of sea level change that has allowed major advances in our understanding of how the Earth is responding to climate change. Observations of sea level change from tide gauges also play an important role, because they provide a means of linking the satellite observations over the last decade to sea level change over the past century, which is critical for ascertaining anthropogenic affects. In addition, the tide gauge network is an important tool for calibrating the satellite sensors. At the turn of the millennium, two more developments fundamentally improved our capability to study the causes of sea level change: the launch of the GRACE satellite gravity mission and the establishment of the Argo network of profiling floats. GRACE has given us the ability to monitor changes in the distribution of water mass anywhere on Earth, most prominently ice mass variations in Greenland, Antarctica, and mountain glaciers, as well as the mass component of sea level directly. The Argo network provides a means of monitoring the contribution of thermosteric sea level changes due to the warming of the oceans. Together, satellite altimetry, satellite gravity, and Argo measurements have provided unprecedented insight into the magnitude, spatial variability, and causes of present-day sea level change. However, there are important questions that still remain to be answered. How deep is the warming of the ocean occurring? What is the potential for catastrophic sea level rise (> 1 m) in the future, and how quickly might these changes occur? What will be the spatial variability of future sea level rise and what will be the socio-economic impacts of this rise? Can we predict these future changes with any certainty? What are the relative contributions to sea level change and how are they related to anthropogenic effects? These are the challenges we will be addressing in the coming decade.

1CCAR (Colorado Center for Astrodynamics Research) and Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES), University of Colorado, UCB 431, Boulder, CO 80309-0431, USA
2College of Marine Science, University of South Florida, 140 7th Ave S, St. Petersburg, FL 33701 USA
3Laboratory for Satellite Altimetry, NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), 1335 East-West Hwy, E/RA31. Silver Spring, MD 20910-3226 USA
4SOEST (School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology), University of Hawaii at Manoa, 1680 East West Road, POST Bldg. #401, Honolulu, HI 96822, USA
5Jet Propulsion Laboratory, 4800 Oak Grove Dr., Pasadena, CA 91109 USA

Correspondence should be addressed to E-mail: nerem@colorado.edu

This paper shall be cited as:

Nerem, R. & Co-Authors (2010). "Observations of Sea Level Change: What Have We Learned and What Are the Remaining Challenges?" in Proceedings of OceanObs’09: Sustained Ocean Observations and Information for Society (Vol. 2), Venice, Italy, 21-25 September 2009, Hall, J., Harrison, D.E. & Stammer, D., Eds., ESA Publication WPP-306, doi:10.5270/OceanObs09.cwp.65

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