Warming to Cause Catastrophic Rise in Sea Level?

Stefan Lovgren
for National Geographic News
Updated April 26, 2004

Most scientists agree that global warming presents the greatest threat to the environment.

There is little doubt that the Earth is heating up. In the last century the average temperature has climbed about 0.6 degrees Celsius (about 1 degree Fahrenheit) around the world.

From the melting of the ice cap on Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa's tallest peak, to the loss of coral reefs as oceans become warmer, the effects of global warming are often clear.

However, the biggest danger, many experts warn, is that global warming will cause sea levels to rise dramatically. Thermal expansion has already raised the oceans 4 to 8 inches (10 to 20 centimeters). But that's nothing compared to what would happen if, for example, Greenland's massive ice sheet were to melt.

"The consequences would be catastrophic," said Jonathan Overpeck, director of the Institute for the Study of Planet Earth at the University of Arizona in Tucson. "Even with a small sea level rise, we're going to destroy whole nations and their cultures that have existed for thousands of years."

Overpeck and his colleagues have used computer models to create a series of maps that show how susceptible coastal cities and island countries are to the sea rising at different levels. The maps show that a 1-meter (3-foot) rise would swamp cities all along the U.S. eastern seaboard. A 6-meter (20-foot) sea level rise would submerge a large part of Florida.


Just as the evidence is irrefutable that temperatures have risen in the last century, it's also well established that carbon dioxide in the Earth's atmosphere has increased about 30 percent, enhancing the atmosphere's ability to trap heat.

The exact link, if any, between the increase in carbon dioxide emissions and the higher temperatures is still under debate.

Most scientists believe that humans, by burning fossil fuels such as coal and petroleum, are largely to blame for the increase in carbon dioxide. But some scientists also point to natural causes, such as volcanic activity.

"Many uncertainties surround global warming," said Ronald Stouffer at the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory in Princeton, New Jersey. "How much of it would still occur if humans were not modifying the climate in any way?"

The current rate of warning is unprecedented, however. It is apparently the fastest warming rate in millions of years, suggesting it probably is not a natural occurrence. And most scientists believe the rise in temperatures will in fact accelerate. The United Nations-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported in 2001 that the average temperature is likely to increase by between 1.4 and 5.8 degrees Celsius (2.5 and 10.4 degrees Fahrenheit) by the year 2100.

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