Sea Level Researchers Debunk Wash. Times' Distortion Of Their Work

A Washington Times editorial falsely claims that a recent sea level study “shows oceans are not rising.” In fact, the study does not dispute that sea levels are rising, and the study's author calls the Washington Times' claim “a mischaracterization of our work.”

Wash. Times Falsely Claims Study “Shows Oceans Are Not Rising”

Wash. Times: “Latest Report Shows Oceans Are Not Rising.” A Washington Times editorial that was posted online on March 28 and appeared in the print version of the newspaper on March 29 claimed that a recent study “shows oceans are not rising”:

Wash. Times screengrab[Washington Times, 3/28/11]

Wash. Times Claims Study Showed Increase In Sea Level In Western Pacific “Was Offset” Elsewhere. The editorial highlighted a recent analysis of U.S. tide gauges by James R. Houston and Robert G. Dean published in the Journal of Coastal Research and claimed that the researchers found that “the sea level was increasing in the western Pacific, but this was offset by a drop in the level near the Alaskan coast”:

The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), co-recipient with Mr. Gore of the Nobel Peace Prize, quantified the sea-level rise as being between 7 and 23 inches by the year 2100. They argued that man's emissions of carbon dioxide have been heating up the globe. While man's CO2 is identical to that emitted by polar bears and other animals favored by environmentalists, the left insists “too much” of it is melting polar ice caps. This, the theory goes, makes the oceans swell.

A former research director with the Army Corps of Engineers and a former civil-engineering professor at the University of Florida decided to put the sea-rise claims to the test. They gathered U.S. tide-gauge readings from 57 stations where water levels had been continuously recorded for as long as 156 years. The result did suggest the sea level was increasing in the western Pacific, but this was offset by a drop in the level near the Alaskan coast. “Our analyses do not indicate acceleration in sea level in U.S. tide gauge records during the 20th century,” the study's authors concluded. “Instead, for each time period we consider, the records show small decelerations that are consistent with a number of earlier studies of worldwide-gauge records.” [Washington Times, 3/28/11]

Study Authors: “Sea Levels Are Rising”

Study Author James R. Houston: Wash. Times' Claim “Is A Mischaracterization Of Our Work.” James Houston, Director Emeritus of the Corps of Engineers' Engineer Research and Development Center and an author of the study cited by the Washington Times stated in an email:

Saying, “Latest report shows oceans are not rising” is a mischaracterization of our work. Sea levels are rising. Our study showed that the rise is not accelerating - it is actually slightly decelerating over at least the last 80 years.

An analogy would be driving a car. If you are driving at a constant speed of 60 miles per hour, the car is not accelerating, but obviously moving. Sea level has been rising at a rate of about 1.7 millimeters per year for the past 100 years. We considered whether the 60 mile per hour speed of the car was accelerating (you are pushing on the gas pedal) or decelerating (you are pushing on the brake). We found a slight deceleration - sea level over the past 100 years, in particularly the past 80 years, has decelerated slightly, but it is rising. [Email to Media Matters, 3/29/11]

The study included the following chart of global mean sea level:

ipcc chart

[Journal of Coastal Research, 2/23/11; International Panel on Climate Change, Fourth Assessment Report, 2007]

Houston: Wash. Times “Implies That The Net Effect Has Been No Rise. This Is Not The Case.” Media Matters asked Houston about the Wash. Times' statement that “The result did suggest the sea level was increasing in the western Pacific, but this was offset by a drop in the level near the Alaskan coast.” Houston replied that this was a reference to satellite measurements, not the tide gauge measurements that his study analyzed. Houston also stated:

Basically, from 1993 to 2010, sea level rise measured by satellite altimeters has been remarkably spatially variable over the planet. But if you add up all the ups and downs, the net effect has been a rise measured by the altimeters of about 3.1 millimeters per year from 1993 to 2010. The newspaper article implies that the net effect has been no rise. This is not the case. [Email to Media Matters, 3/29/11]

Study Author Robert Dean: “Sea Level In The 20th Century Was (And Is) Rising.” Responding to the Washington Times' claim that his study “shows oceans are not rising,” Robert Dean, Professor Emeritus at the Department of Civil and Coastal Engineering of the University of Florida, stated via email:

There is a difference between “rising” and “accelerating”. Accelerating means that the rate of rise is increasing. Sea level in the 20th Century was (and is) rising, it wasn't accelerating taking the entire century as a whole.

Because the satellite altimetry has concluded that since 1992, the rate of rise has been more rapid than in the 20th Century (which would imply a recent acceleration), we are now examining more than 400 gauge records over the last 20 years or so. [Email to Media Matters, 3/29/11]

Wash. Times Falsely Suggests Study Refutes IPCC Estimates Of Future Sea Level Rise

Wash Times: The Study “Put The Sea-Rise Claims To The Test.” After stating that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change “quantified the sea-level rise as being between 7 and 23 inches by the year 2100,” the editorial claimed that Houston and Dean “decided to put the sea-rise claims to the test.” [Washington Times, 3/28/11]

Houston: IPCC Figures Are “A Reasonable Prediction For The Range Of Scenarios They Consider.” Houston stated via email:

I personally think that IPCC (2007)'s range of 7-23 in by 2100 is a reasonable prediction for the range of scenarios they consider. Our results would indicate that if the conditions of the past century persist (so a similar temperature rise of the past century), the rise by 2100 would approach the lower limit of the range - so about 7 inches. However, most of the scenarios involve greater temperature rises and we also would expect there might be greater melting of ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica.

Therefore, a range of 7-23 inches seems reasonable to me given we don't know which scenario of greenhouse gas emissions, temperature rises, and sea level response to temperature rises will occur. [Email to Media Matters, 3/29/11]

Josh Willis Of Jet Propulsion Laboratory: “Past Rise Is Not An Indicator Of Future Rise.” Commenting on the Journal of Coastal Research study via email, Josh Willis, an ocean expert at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, stated: “I think that most people who study global sea level rise accept that there has been an increase, or acceleration, in the rate of global sea level rise during that last 100 or more years. However, scientists do disagree on how obvious this is in some of the tide gauge data.” He also said that “it is very difficult to estimate the rate of globally averaged sea level rise from tide gauges alone, much less to do so with something a subtle as acceleration.” Willis added:

But more importantly, past rise is not an indicator of future rise. When we look closely at the things that cause sea level rise, like ice loss from glaciers and ice sheets, we find that they can dump huge amounts of ice into the ocean in a very short time. So this paper has little or no bearing on sea level rise during the next century. Most people who study these things agree that future rise will be something like 2 to 5 feet by 2100 and this paper doesn't change that." [Email to Media Matters, 3/29/11]

NCAR's Kevin Trenberth: “Since 1993 Sea Level Is Rising At Rates Unprecedented In The Past 150 Years.” Kevin Trenberth, head of the Climate Analysis Section at the National Center for Atmospheric Research similarly stated that the Journal of Coastal Research study “says nothing about the future,” adding that “future sea level rise is much debated” with some estimating that “it could be much greater than 23 inches by 2100 (the IPCC estimates are known to be low because they did not include all factors, and they say so.)” Trenberth further stated:

Facts are that since 1993 sea level is rising at rates unprecedented in the past 150 years and it is well accounted for by expansion of the ocean and melting of land ice. Prospects for the future are even larger increases depending critically on what happens to the major ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica. Both have shown acceleration of melting since 2003. [Email to Media Matters, 3/29/11]