Sea level rise ‘will surpass worst-case scenario’

Bangladesh already experiences flooding that could be worsened by sea level rise Copyright: Flickr_uncultured

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[COPENHAGEN] Global sea levels will rise much higher than predicted by the end of this century, climate experts have warned — a scenario which could have dire consequences for millions of people in the developing world.

Just two years ago, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicted a worst-case scenario rise of 59 centimetres. But the accelerated melting of ice sheets in Antarctica and Greenland caused by faster warming means the worst case is now put at 1.2 metres.

A sea level rise of one metre or more is predicted to have a devastating effect on major coastal cities, island states and populous delta areas such as those in Bangladesh and Myanmar.

A panel of experts speaking yesterday (10 March) at the International Scientific Conference on Climate Change in Copenhagen, Denmark, warned that without efforts to curb the rise of greenhouse gas emissions, sea level rise would expose most parts of the world to greater storm surges — increases in local sea level caused by the winds of storms — threatening lives and infrastructure.

John Church, a scientist at the Centre for Australian Weather and Climate Research in Tasmania, Australia, and lead speaker at the session, explained that the most recent satellite and ground-based observations show that sea levels are continuing to rise at three millimetres or more per year since 1993 — a rate well above the average in the twentieth century.

"It is becoming increasingly apparent from our studies of Greenland and Antarctica that rising temperature has contributed significantly to the observed sea level rise through thermal expansion of sea water and widespread loss of land ice," said Church. He said that further warming could trigger polar ice cap melting.

"We cannot prevent all sea level rise. We will have to mitigate and adapt to avert the most extreme scenario. The least developed nations are at most risk," Church told SciDev.Net.

Stefan Rahmsdorf of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany said that by 2200, the sea level will have increased by an estimated 1.5 to 3.5 metres.

"Ice sheets are melting faster, and sea level rise is a huge threat unless we stop the warming," Rahmsdorf told the press.