New science suggests the ocean could rise more — and faster — than we thought

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Climate change could lead to sea level rises that are larger, and happen more rapidly, than previously thought, according to a trio of new studies that reflect mounting concerns about the stability of polar ice.

In one case, the research suggests that previous high end projections for sea level rise by the year 2100 — a little over three feet — could be too low, substituting numbers as high as six feet at the extreme if the world continues to burn large volumes of fossil fuels throughout the century.

“We have the potential to have much more sea level rise under high emissions scenarios,” said Alexander Nauels, a researcher at the University of Melbourne in Australia who led one of the three studies. His work, co-authored with researchers at institutions in Austria, Switzerland, and Germany, was published Thursday in Environmental Research Letters.

The results comprise both novel scientific observations — based on high resolution seafloor imaging techniques that give a new window on past sea level events — and new modeling techniques based on a better understanding of Antarctic ice.

The observational results, from Texas and Antarctica, examine a similar time period — the close of the last Ice Age a little over 10,000 years ago, when seas are believed to have risen very rapidly at times, as northern hemisphere ice sheets collapsed.

Off the Texas coast, this would have inundated ancient coral reefs. Usually, these reefs can grow upward to keep pace with sea level rise, but there’s a limit — one observed by a team of scientists aboard a vessel called the Falcor in 200 foot deep waters off the coast of Corpus Christi.

These so-called drowned reefs showed features that the researchers called “terraces,” an indicator of how the corals would have tried to respond to fast rising sea levels. Because the organisms must maintain access to a certain amount of sunlight, they would have tried to grow higher to keep up with fast rising seas — but they wouldn’t have been able to do so over a very large area. And so their growth became concentrated in progressively smaller, stepped regions:

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Weather Alert Online: New science suggests the ocean could rise more — and faster — than we thought
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