Major sea level rise on the horizon, study warns

By Kerry Sheridan, AFP

MIAMI — Scientists who study patterns of natural shifts in the Earth’s climate said Thursday they have uncovered a “worrisome” signal that major sea level rise could be on the way. The findings in the journal Science show that ocean surface temperatures during the Earth’s last warm period, some 125,000 years ago, were remarkably similar to today. But what concerns scientists is that sea level back then was 6-9 meters above what it is today. “The trend is worrisome,” said the report led by researchers at Oregon State University, University College Dublin, the University of Wisconsin and the Science Museum of Virginia. “Collectively, these results may help scientists better understand how oceans will respond to modern warming.” Our planet goes through periods of warm and cold that last tens of thousands of years, and are influenced by changes in Sun exposure caused by natural variations in the Earth’s orbit, combined with the influence of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. These naturally occurring shifts are different than the much faster pace of warming facing the Earth today, as humans burn fossil fuels for energy and send heat-trapping carbon emissions into the air, leading to ice melt and sea level rise. The last time the climate was unusually warm — in the absence of human influence — was about between 116,000 and 129,000 years ago, during what is known as the Last Interglacial Period. It was one of the warmest periods in the last 800,000 years, according to the report.

The basis for the study was an analysis of 83 marine sediment core sites, which can give clues to how warm the Earth and oceans were in the past. Each core site was compared to data sets from 1870-1889 and 1995-2014, respectively.

The analysis showed that 129,000 years ago, the global ocean surface temperature “was already similar to the 1870-1889 average.” The temperature rose over the next 4,000 years, “reaching a temperature indistinguishable from the 1995-2014 average.” The finding means that some scientific models that have been used to estimate sea levels at various temperatures could have been underestimates. Scientists have already predicted the Earth is likely to see multiple meters of sea level rise in the years to come, a development that will swallow many of the planet’s coastal communities, currently home to one billion people. No one knows how fast the seas may rise in the decades to come, but some experts say the latest study is cause for alarm.