Global and European sea-level rise
Justification for indicator selection
Sea level is an important indicator of climate change because it is associated with significant potential impacts on settlements, infrastructure, people and natural systems. It acts on time scales much longer than those of indicators that are closely related to near-surface temperature change. Even if GHG concentrations were stabilised immediately, sea level would continue to rise for centuries.
Low-lying coastlines with high population densities and small tidal ranges are most vulnerable to sea-level rise, in particular where adaptation is hindered by a lack of economic resources or by other constraints. In Europe, the potential impacts of sea-level rise include flooding, coastal erosion, and the loss of flat coastal regions. Rising sea levels can also cause salt-water intrusion into low-lying aquifers and endanger coastal ecosystems and wetlands. Higher flood levels increase the risks to life and property, including sea dikes and other infrastructure, with possible follow-up effects on tourism, recreation and transportation functions. Damage associated with sea-level rise would frequently result from extreme events, such as storm surges, the frequency of which would increase as the mean sea level rises.
- IPCC, 2007a. Cimate Change: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Solomon, S.; Qin, D.; Manning, M.; Chen, Z.; Marquis, M.; Averyt, K. B.; Tignor M. and Miller H. L. (eds.), Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK
- IPCC, 2007b. Climate Change: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability. Contribution of Working Group II to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Parry, M. L.; Canziani, O. F.; Palutikof, J. P.; van der Linden, P.J. and Hanson, C.E. (eds.), Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.
This indicator comprises several metrics to describe past and (to a limited extent) future sea-level rise globally and in Europe. Global sea-level rise is reported because it is the second-most important metric of global climate change (after global mean surface temperature), and because it is a proxy of sea-level rise in Europe. Past sea-level trends across Europe are reported in two different ways: first, absolute sea level change based on satellite altimeter measurements that reflect primarily the contribution of global climate change to sea-level rise in Europe; seconed, relative sea-level change based on tide gauges that also include local land movement, which is more relevant for the development of regional adaptation strategies.
The following components are included:
- Change in global mean sea level (time series starting in 1880, in mm), based on a reconstruction from various data sources (since 1880) and on satellite altimeter data (since 1993)
- Trend in absolute sea level across Europe (map, in mm/year), based on satellite measurements (since 1992)
- Trend in relative sea level across Europe (map, in mm/year), based on selected European tide gauge stations (since 1970)
In addition, this indicator informs about the contributions from various sources to the observed global sea level rise (since 1972).
Finally, this indicator presents projections for sea level rise in the 21st century, both globally and for the European seas.
Policy context and targets
In April 2013 the European Commission presented the EU Adaptation Strategy Package (http://ec.europa.eu/clima/policies/adaptation/what/documentation_en.htm). This package consists of the EU Strategy on adaptation to climate change /* COM/2013/0216 final */ and a number of supporting documents. One of the objectives of the EU Adaptation Strategy is Better informed decision-making, which should occur through Bridging the knowledge gap and Further developing Climate-ADAPT as the ‘one-stop shop’ for adaptation information in Europe. Further objectives include Promoting action by Member States and Climate-proofing EU action: promoting adaptation in key vulnerable sectors. Many EU Member States have already taken action, such as by adopting national adaptation strategies, and several have also prepared action plans on climate change adaptation.
The European Commission and the European Environment Agency have developed the European Climate Adaptation Platform (Climate-ADAPT, http://climate-adapt.eea.europa.eu/) to share knowledge on observed and projected climate change and its impacts on environmental and social systems and on human health; on relevant research; on EU, national and subnational adaptation strategies and plans; and on adaptation case studies.
No targets have been specified.
Related policy documents
Climate-ADAPT: Mainstreaming adaptation in EU sector policies
Overview of EU sector policies in which mainstreaming of adaptation to climate change is ongoing or explored
Climate-ADAPT: National adaptation strategies
Overview of activities of EEA member countries in preparing, developing and implementing adaptation strategies
DG CLIMA: Adaptation to climate change
Adaptation means anticipating the adverse effects of climate change and taking appropriate action to prevent or minimise the damage they can cause, or taking advantage of opportunities that may arise. It has been shown that well planned, early adaptation action saves money and lives later. This webportal provides information on all adaptation activities of the European Commission.
EU Adaptation Strategy Package
In April 2013 the European Commission adopted an EU strategy on adaptation to climate change which has been welcomed by the EU Member States. The strategy aims to make Europe more climate-resilient. By taking a coherent approach and providing for improved coordination, it will enhance the preparedness and capacity of all governance levels to respond to the impacts of climate change.
Key policy question
What is the trend in mean sea level globally and across European seas?
Methodology for indicator calculation
Sea-level changes are measured using tide gauges and remotely from space using altimeters.
Currently there are two main approaches to projecting future sea level: physically-based models that represent the most important known processes, and statistical models that apply the observed relationship between temperature or radiative forcing on the one hand and sea level on the other hand in the past and extrapolate it to the future. Both approaches produce a spread of results, which results in large uncertainties around future sea-level rise.
Methodology for gap filling
- Church and White (2011): Sea-Level Rise from the Late 19th to the Early 21st Century Surveys in Geophysics, September 2011 , Volume 32 , Issue 4-5 , pp 585-602
- Woodworth and Player (2003): The Permanent Service for Mean Sea Level: An Update to the 21stCentury Journal of Coastal Research , Vol. 19, No. 2, Spring, 2003
- Nicholls et al (2010): Sea-level rise and its possible impacts given a ‘beyond 4°C world’ in the twenty-first century doi: 10.1098/rsta.2010.0291 Phil. Trans. R. Soc. A 13 January 2011 vol. 369 no. 1934 161-181
EEA data references
- No datasets have been specified here.
External data references
- Mean Sea Level Trend from satellite altimetry (T/P-Jason-1-Jason-2 merged datasets)
- Permanent Service for Mean Sea Level (PSMSL)
- Sea-Level Rise from the Late 19th to the Early 21st Century
Data sources in latest figures
Data sets uncertainty
Changes in global average sea level result from a combination of several physical processes. Thermal expansion of the oceans occurs as a result of warming ocean water. Additional water is added to the ocean from a net melting of glaciers and small ice caps, and from the large Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets. Further contributions may come from changes in the storage of liquid water on land, either in natural reservoirs such as groundwater or man-made reservoirs.
The locally experienced changes in sea level differ from global average changes for various reasons. Changes in water density are not expected to be spatially uniform, and changes in ocean circulation also have regionally different impacts. At any particular location there may also be a vertical movement of the land in either direction, for example due to the post-glacial rebound (in northern Europe) or to local groundwater extraction.
Further information on uncertainties is provided in Section 1.7 of the EEA report on Climate change, impacts, and vulnerability in Europe 2012 (http://www.eea.europa.eu/publications/climate-impacts-and-vulnerability-2012/)
No uncertainty has been specified
Short term work
Work specified here requires to be completed within 1 year from now.
Long term work
Work specified here will require more than 1 year (from now) to be completed.
Responsibility and ownership
EEA Contact InfoHans-Martin Füssel
Frequency of updates
Typology: Descriptive indicator (Type A - What is happening to the environment and to humans?)
For references, please go to www.eea.europa.eu/soer or scan the QR code.
This briefing is part of the EEA's report The European Environment - State and Outlook 2015. The EEA is an official agency of the EU, tasked with providing information on Europe’s environment.
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