Research Spotlight

Protecting Our Planet

Improving Predictions on Rising Sea Levels

As one of the most pressing issues of our time, climate change has caused significant rises in sea levels, and the accurate prediction of just how much they will rise in future is subject to ongoing analysis.

Now, a new study involving an international group of 29 ice-sheet experts, led by Edward Hanna, Professor of Climate Science and Meteorology at the University of Lincoln, has identified that global climate change-related rises in sea level could be better predicted by gaining a clearer understanding of the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets.

The team of interdisciplinary scientists undertook a review of evidence gained from observational data, geological records, and computer model simulations. Published in the Nature journal, Nature Reviews Earth & Environment, the research discusses the demand to monitor short- and long-term timescales of changes in ice sheet behaviour, to reduce uncertainty in future sea level rise projections.

The time to act is now - this research could help to prevent future ice-sheet mass loss and improve projections, helping us pave the way for a more sustainable future.

The new study highlights that predictions of sea level rise could be refined, to better prepare for the impacts of climate change. Glacial masses are subject to short-term fluctuations and extreme events across a wide range of timescales, from days to thousands of years, and as a result diverse knowledge should be gathered.

Historically, ice sheets have been thought of as slow-moving and delayed in their response to climate change. These ice sheets lock up sea water, equivalent to an increase of 65 metres of global sea level rise. In contrast, the team’s research illustrates that these huge glaciers respond in far quicker and unexpected ways as the climate warms, similarly to the frequency and intensity of hurricanes and heatwaves responding to changes with the climate.

Ground and satellite observations, and the development of climate models demonstrate that sudden heatwaves and large storms can have long-lasting effects on ice sheets. This weather fluctuation can lead to extreme melt events, such as the Greenland ice sheet melt in July 2023, or cause ice shelves to disappear almost overnight, as with the Antarctica Conger Ice Shelf collapse in 2022. 

The Lincoln Centre for Water and Planetary Health

Our Lincoln Centre for Water and Planetary Health focuses on solving global environmental and societal challenges, including hydrological and sea-level impacts of climate change, as well as behavioural, political, and economic adaptation mechanisms to mitigate environmental and human health impacts.

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“Ice-sheet mass loss is not a simple uniform response to climate warming but is punctuated, for example, by short-term extreme melting events, and by the catastrophic break-up of ice shelves along the coast which can occur rapidly unplugging much larger amounts of ice from further inland," commented Edward Hanna, Professor of Climate Science and Meteorology. 

“The patterns, processes, and impacts of ice-sheet variability on different timescales from days through to millennia are not well understood. Failing to account for such variability can result in biased projections of future ice-sheet mass loss.”

This review serves as a call to action, urging the scientific community to prioritise research efforts that will enhance the understanding of ice sheet variability. It is crucial that scientists, policymakers, and stakeholders collaborate more closely to improve climate and ocean monitoring systems, refine models, and ensure that ice sheet models accurately represent the observed changes.

The research was sponsored by the World Climate Research Programme’s Climate and Cryosphere project, the International Arctic Science Committee, and the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research.

Meet the Expert

Edward Hanna is Professor of Climate Science and Meteorology and a Fellow of the Royal Meteorological Society. His research specialisms include climate change and meteorology, seasonal weather prediction, and solar eclipses.

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