Sea level rise: when news isn’t news

Photo credit: Apollo 17 / NASA

Climate change has become a hot topic in more ways than one, so instead of jumping straight into the issues surrounding sea level rise it’s worth discussing how climate change or global warming can sometimes play out in the news.

Let’s start with something cool, concrete, and agreeable: numbers. Most people would agree that .3 is a small number; it’s a fraction, three tenths, just a little bit more than zero.

And since .3 is a small number, it seems safe to say that .3 millimeters is a small amount. In fact, .3 mm is so little, that it’s difficult to imagine .3 mm of anything making the news, unless it was in reference to a crime scene maybe…police find .3 mm of poison in the freezer. But climate change has become so political that sometimes things that aren’t news make headlines obscuring the real news.

For example, in May scientists with the University of Colorado Sea Level Research Group made a .3 mm per year correction to the rate of sea level rise being measured by satellites. This type of modification happens all the time, which is explained on the UC Sea Level Research Group website: “Since 1993, measurements from the TOPEX and Jason series of satellite radar altimeters have allowed estimates of global mean sea level. These measurements are continuously calibrated against a network of tide gauges. When seasonal and other variations are subtracted, they allow estimation of the global mean sea level rate. As new data, models and corrections become available, we continuously revise these estimates (about every two months) to improve their quality.” This is a complicated way of saying that the way sea level rise is measured is constantly being improved and adjusted as more information becomes available.

Adding .3 mm per year to the rate of sea level rise was just another very tiny improvement in the ongoing effort to determine the average sea level rate across the globe, which is no small task by the way since it involves measuring the entire ocean. But this minor adjustment actually made headlines and was covered by Forbes and Fox News…two cases of .3 mm making the news. (Forbes published an op-ed online written by a senior fellow at the Heartland Institute questioning the validity of the .3 correction and accusing NASA-funded scientists of doctoring data, for the full “scoop” click here and then Fox News ran a story featuring the writer of the op-ed.)

According to Josh Willis, an oceanographer at JPL, the author of the Forbes piece is missing the point, “Sea levels are going up about 3 mm per year and this is .3 mm per year, it’s 10 times smaller. So 3 mm per year that’s about an inch per decade and this effect is an inch every 100 years, so it’s totally unimportant for sea level rise, it’s purely an academic thing,” said Willis. “The point is that researchers in the field are suggesting three to four feet of sea level rise is not unlikely, it’s a distinct possibility. So we’re looking at three or four feet in the next 100 years and this guy is arguing over one inch in the next 100 years.”

Focusing on an insignificant .3 mm per year correction draws attention away from the real news that sea levels are rising 3 mm per year (this time there’s no dot, period or point in front of the three). This type of non-news is frustrating to scientists like Willis, “I think a lot of people read Forbes, I don’t know how many people read their blog, but you know a lot of people read it and it’s read by a lot of business minded folks,” said Willis. “And that’s a big thing because one of the things we have to cope with in climate change and global warming is we have to get the business community on board to help think of solutions.”

Innovative business solutions that could help vulnerable coastal villages such as Shishmaref, Alaska relocate to higher ground without breaking the bank. A 2006 study by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimates that Shishmaref has 10 to 15 years until the coast erodes allowing the sea to move in. With the clock ticking five years later, Shishmaref residents haven’t budged because the village doesn’t have the $100 to 200 million it costs to relocate. (For a detailed description of the challenges facing Shishmaref read this case study by the Climate Adaptation Knowledge Exchange.)

The story of Shishmaref, a community facing a bleak future from a perfect storm of global warming factors including sea level rise, is real news, not a .3 correction to the way sea level rise is measured. Stay tuned for real news on sea level rise in a future post.


  1. Bryan says

    Kudos to you for shining a light on the desperation of the climate change denialists. The fact that they need to distort such insignificant information to suit their wild claims is a sign that they are losing the battle. Those of us with our eyes open will continue to fight the good fight and protect the oceans.

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