Global and European sea-level rise

Indicator Specification
Indicator codes: CSI 047 , CLIM 012
Created 05 Nov 2019 Published 04 Dec 2019 Last modified 04 Dec 2019
13 min read
This indicator comprises several metrics to describe past and future sea level rises globally and in European seas. 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; second, 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 indicator also addresses changes in extreme sea level along the European coast. The following aspects of sea level rise are included: observed change in GMSL, based on two reconstructions from tide gauge measurements (since 1880) and on satellite altimeter data (since 1993); spatial trends in absolute sea level across European seas, based on satellite measurements (since 1993); spatial trends in relative sea level across European seas, based on European tide gauge stations with long time series (since 1970); projected change in global sea level for three different forcing scenarios; projected change in relative sea level across European seas; projected change in the frequency of flooding events along European coasts.

Assessment versions

Published (reviewed and quality assured)

Rationale

Justification for indicator selection

Sea level is an important indicator of climate change because it can have significant 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 greenhouse gas concentrations were stabilised immediately, sea level would continue to rise for many centuries.

Changes in GMSL result from a combination of several physical processes. The thermal expansion of the oceans occurs as a result of warming ocean water. Additional water is added to the ocean from the net melting of glaciers and small ice caps, and from the disintegration of the large Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets. Further contributions may come from changes in the storage of liquid water on land, in either natural reservoirs such as groundwater or man-made reservoirs.

Changes in sea level experienced locally differ from global average changes for various reasons. First, changes in water density are not expected to be spatially uniform, and the spatial pattern also depends on changes in large-scale ocean circulation. Second, changes in the gravity field, for instance as water moves from melting ice on land to the ocean, also vary across regions. Finally, at any particular location, there may be a vertical movement of the land in either direction, due, for example, to the ongoing effects of post-glacial rebound (also known as glacial isostatic adjustment), which is particularly strong in northern Europe, to local groundwater extraction or to other processes, including tectonic activity.

In Europe, the potential impacts of sea level rise include flooding, coastal erosion and the submergence of flat regions along continental coastlines and on islands. Rising sea levels can also cause salt-water intrusion into low-lying aquifers, thus threatening water supplies and endangering coastal ecosystems and wetlands. Higher flood levels increase the risk to life and property, including to sea dikes and other infrastructure, with potential impacts on tourism, recreation and transportation functions. 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.

Damage associated with sea level rise is mostly caused by extreme events, such as storm surges. Of most concern are events during which the surge coincides with high tidal levels and increases the risk of coastal flooding owing to extreme water levels. Changes in the climatology of extreme water levels (i.e. the frequency and height of maximum water levels) may be caused by changes in local mean sea level (i.e. the local sea level relative to land averaged over a year or so), changes in tidal range, changes in the local wave climate or changes in storm surge characteristics. Climate change can both increase and decrease average wave height along the European coastline, depending on the location and season.

Changes in storm surge characteristics are linked to changes in the characteristics of atmospheric storms, including the frequency, track and intensity of the storms. The intensity of storm surges can also be strongly affected by regional and local geographical features, such as the shape of the coastline. Typically, the highest water levels are found on the rising limb of the tide. The most intense surge events typically occur during the winter months in Europe.

The most obvious impact of extreme sea levels is flooding. The best known coastal flooding event in Europe in living memory occurred in 1953 when a combination of a severe storm surge and a high spring tide caused in excess of 2 000 deaths in Belgium, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, and damaged or destroyed more than 40 000 buildings. Currently, around 200 million people live in the coastal zone in Europe, as defined by Eurostat. Coastal storms and storm surges can also have considerable ecological impacts, such as seabird wrecks, disruption to seal mating and pupping, and increases in large mammal and turtle strandings.

Scientific references

Indicator definition

This indicator comprises several metrics to describe past and future sea level rises globally and in European seas. 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; second, 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 indicator also addresses changes in extreme sea level along the European coast.

The following aspects of sea level rise are included:

  • observed change in GMSL, based on two reconstructions from tide gauge measurements (since 1880) and on satellite altimeter data (since 1993);
  • spatial trends in absolute sea level across European seas, based on satellite measurements (since 1993);
  • spatial trends in relative sea level across European seas, based on European tide gauge stations with long time series (since 1970);
  • projected change in global sea level for three different forcing scenarios;
  • projected change in relative sea level across European seas;
  • projected change in the frequency of flooding events along European coasts.

Units

  • Change in sea level (mm).
  • Rate of sea level change (mm/year).
  • Increase in flooding events (unitless).

Policy context and targets

Context description

In April 2013, the European Commission presented the EU adaptation strategy package. This package consists of the EU strategy on adaptation to climate change (COM/2013/216 final) and a number of supporting documents. The overall aim of the EU adaptation strategy is to contribute to a more climate-resilient Europe. One of the objectives of the EU adaptation strategy is Better informed decision-making. This will be achieved by bridging knowledge gaps and further developing the European climate adaptation platform (Climate-ADAPT) as the ‘one-stop shop’ for adaptation information in Europe. Climate-ADAPT was developed jointly by the European Commission and the EEA to share knowledge on (1) observed and projected climate change and its impacts on environmental and social systems and on human health, (2) relevant research, (3) EU, transnational, national and subnational adaptation strategies and plans, and (4) adaptation case studies. It was relaunched in early 2019 with a new design and updated content. Further objectives include Promoting adaptation in key vulnerable sectors through climate-proofing EU sector policies and Promoting action by Member States.

In November 2018, the Commission published its evaluation of the 2013 EU adaptation strategy. The evaluation package includes a report from the Commission, a Commission staff working document, adaptation preparedness scoreboard country fiches and reports from the JRC Peseta III project. This evaluation includes recommendations for the further development and implementation of adaptation policies at all levels.

In November 2013, the European Parliament and the Council of the European Union adopted the EU's Seventh Environment Action Programme (7th EAP) to 2020, ‘Living well, within the limits of our planet’. The 7th EAP is intended to help guide EU action on environment and climate change up to and beyond 2020. It highlights that ‘Action to mitigate and adapt to climate change will increase the resilience of the Union’s economy and society, while stimulating innovation and protecting the Union’s natural resources’. Consequently, several priority objectives of the 7th EAP refer to climate change adaptation.

Targets

No targets have been specified.

Related policy documents

  • 7th Environment Action Programme
    DECISION No 1386/2013/EU OF THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT AND OF THE COUNCIL of 20 November 2013 on a General Union Environment Action Programme to 2020 ‘Living well, within the limits of our planet’. In November 2013, the European Parliament and the European Council adopted the 7 th EU Environment Action Programme to 2020 ‘Living well, within the limits of our planet’. This programme is intended to help guide EU action on the environment and climate change up to and beyond 2020 based on the following vision: ‘In 2050, we live well, within the planet’s ecological limits. Our prosperity and healthy environment stem from an innovative, circular economy where nothing is wasted and where natural resources are managed sustainably, and biodiversity is protected, valued and restored in ways that enhance our society’s resilience. Our low-carbon growth has long been decoupled from resource use, setting the pace for a safe and sustainable global society.’
  • Climate-ADAPT: Adaptation in EU policy sectors
    Overview of EU sector policies in which mainstreaming of adaptation to climate change is ongoing or explored
  • Climate-ADAPT: Country profiles
    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 in the future. This web portal 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 enhances the preparedness and capacity of all governance levels to respond to the impacts of climate change.
  • Evaluation of the EU Adaptation Strategy Package
    In November 2018, the EC published an evaluation of the EU Adaptation Strategy. The evaluation package comprises a Report on the implementation of the EU Strategy on adaptation to climate change (COM(2018)738), the Evaluation of the EU Strategy on adaptation to climate change (SWD(2018)461), and the Adaptation preparedness scoreboard Country fiches (SWD(2018)460). The evaluation found that the EU Adaptation Strategy has been a reference point to prepare Europe for the climate impacts to come, at all levels. It emphasized that EU policy must seek to create synergies between climate change adaptation, disaster risk reduction efforts and sustainable development to avoid future damage and provide for long-term economic and social welfare in Europe and in partner countries. The evaluation also suggests areas where more work needs to be done to prepare vulnerable regions and sectors.

Key policy question

What are the trends in mean sea levels globally and across European seas?

Specific policy question

What is the trend in extreme sea levels along European coasts?

Methodology

Methodology for indicator calculation

Sea level changes are measured using tide gauges and remotely from space using altimeters. Tide gauges provide direct measurements, but they are influenced by local processes such as land subsidence. Furthermore, there are significant gaps in the spatial coverage of tide gauges with long time series, including in Europe.

As far as the indicator derived from satellite altimetry is concerned, the global and European sea level trends are calculated from a combination of nine partly overlapping satellite missions. The data are corrected for seasonal variations, inverse barometer effects and post-glacial rebound.

Sea level projections are based on process-based models, which are rooted in state-of-the-art climate model simulations. Projections for relative mean sea level in Europe consider the gravitational and solid Earth response and land movement due to glacial isostatic adjustment, but not land subsidence as a result of human activities.

Projections of extreme sea level can be made using either process-based (dynamic) or empirical statistical modelling of storm surge behaviour driven by the output of global climate models.

Methodology for gap filling

Model-based projections for changes in regional sea level rise included only grid cells that are covered at least half by sea. Data for other grid cells partly covered by land and by sea were extrapolated using the nearest-neighbour method.

Methodology references

Uncertainties

Methodology uncertainty

See Methodology’ section.

Data sets uncertainty

Changes in global average sea levels result from a combination of several physical processes. The thermal expansion of the oceans occurs as a result of warming ocean water. Additional water is added to the ocean from a net mass loss 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, in either natural reservoirs such as groundwater or man-made reservoirs.

The changes in sea level experienced locally 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, due for example to the post-glacial rebound (in northern Europe) or to local groundwater extraction.

Projections from process-based models with likely ranges and median values for GMSL rise up to 2100 (relative to 1986-2005) have been made for three RCP scenarios. The contributions from ice sheets include contributions from ice-sheet rapid dynamical change. The value of the Antarctic contribution is the individual component with the largest uncertainty.

The level of uncertainty in future projections of extreme sea level for Europe remains high and is ultimately linked to uncertainties related to future mid-latitude storminess changes. This is an area in which current scientific understanding is advancing quickly, as climate model representations of aspects of northern hemisphere storm track behaviour are improving, because of, for instance, greater ocean and atmosphere resolution. However, the newest global climate models have not yet, typically, been downscaled to suitably fine scales and used in studies of future storm surges.

Rationale uncertainty

No uncertainty has been specified

Further work

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.

General metadata

Responsibility and ownership

EEA Contact Info

Hans-Martin Füssel

Ownership

European Environment Agency (EEA)

Identification

Indicator code
CSI 047
CLIM 012
Specification
Version id: 7

Frequency of updates

Updates are scheduled once per year

Classification

DPSIR: Impact
Typology: Descriptive indicator (Type A - What is happening to the environment and to humans?)

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Data references used

Latest figures and vizualizations

Relevant policy documents

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