Causes of Sea Level Rise

Past, present, and future changes in global sea level are mainly caused by two fundamental processes: (1) the thermal expansion of the existing water in the world's ocean basins as it absorbs heat and (2) the addition of water from land-based sources— mainly the shrinking of ice sheets and glaciers.

Because of the huge capacity of the oceans to absorb heat, 80 to 90 percent of the heating associated with human GHG emissions over the past 50 years has gone into raising the temperature of the oceans. The subsequent thermal expansion of the oceans is responsible for an estimated 50 percent of the observed sea level rise since the late 19th century. Even if GHG concentrations are stabilized, ocean warming and the accompanying sea level rise will continue until the oceans reach a new thermal equilibrium with the atmosphere. Ice in the world's glaciers and ice sheets contributes directly to sea level rise through melt or the flow of ice into the sea. The major ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica contain the equivalent of 23 and 197 feet (7 and 60 meters) of sea level, respectively.

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