Study shows record-breaking sea-level rise along U.S. Southeast, Gulf Coasts

Published: Apr. 10, 2023 at 12:44 PM CDT
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NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - A new study by Tulane University scientists has revealed that sea levels along the US Southeast and Gulf coasts have been accelerating rapidly, reaching record-breaking rates over the past 12 years. According to the research, published in Nature Communications, scientists detected sea-level rise rates of about half an inch per year since 2010, attributed to the compounding effects of man-made climate change and natural climate variability.

“These rapid rates are unprecedented over at least the 20th century and they have been three times higher than the global average over the same period,” says Sönke Dangendorf, lead author and David and Jane Flowerree Assistant Professor in the Department of River-Coastal Science and Engineering at Tulane.

The authors studied a combination of field and satellite measurements since 1900, pinpointing the individual contributors to the acceleration.

“We systematically investigated the different causes, such as vertical land motion, ice-mass loss, and air pressure, but none of them could sufficiently explain the recent rate,” said co-author and undergraduate student in Dangendorf’s team at his former institution, Old Dominion University, Noah Hendricks.


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Instead, the scientists found that the acceleration was a widespread signal that extended from the coasts of the Gulf of Mexico up to Cape Hatteras in North Carolina and into the North Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Seas, indicative of changes in the ocean’s density and circulation. The entire area, known as the Subtropical Gyre, has been expanding primarily due to changing wind patterns and continued warming over the past 12 years, causing warmer water masses that need more space and leading to a rise in sea level.

The scientists suggested that the recent acceleration was a superposition of man-made climate change signals and a peak in weather-related variability that lasted over several years. They concluded that the rates would likely return to more moderate values predicted by climate models in the coming decades.

“These high rates of sea-level rise have put even more stress on these vulnerable coastlines, particularly in Louisiana and Texas, where the land is also sinking rapidly,” co-author and Vokes Geology Professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Tulane, Torbjörn Törnqvist, said.

Dangendorf called for interdisciplinary and collaborative efforts to sustainably face these challenges, saying that the “results, once again, demonstrate the urgency of the climate crisis for the Gulf region.”

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