PCC Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate: Sea Level Rise and Implications for Low-Lying Islands, Coasts and Communities (Chapter 4)

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This chapter assesses past and future contributions to global, regional and extreme sea level changes, associated risk to low-lying islands, coasts, cities, and settlements, and response options and pathways to resilience and sustainable development along the coast.


Global mean sea level (GMSL) is rising (virtually certain1) and accelerating (high confidence2). The sum of glacier and ice sheet contributions is now the dominant source of GMSL rise (very high confidence). GMSL from tide gauges and altimetry observations increased from 1.4 mm yr–1 over the period 1901–1990 to 2.1 mm yr–1 over the period 1970–2015 to 3.2 mm yr–1 over the period 1993–2015 to 3.6 mm yr–1 over the period 2006–2015 (high confidence). The dominant cause of GMSL rise since 1970 is anthropogenic forcing (high confidence). {,}

GMSL was considerably higher than today during past climate states that were warmer than pre-industrial, including the Last Interglacial (LIG; 129–116 ka), when global mean surface temperature was 0.5ºC–1.0ºC warmer, and the mid-Pliocene Warm Period (mPWP; ~3.3 to 3.0 million years ago), 2ºC–4ºC warmer. Despite the modest global warmth of the Last Interglacial, GMSL was likely 6–9 m higher, mainly due to contributions from the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets (GIS and AIS, respectively), and unlikely more than 10m higher (medium confidence). Based on new understanding about geological constraints since the IPCC 5th Assessment Report (AR5), 25 m is a plausible upper bound on GMSL during the mPWP (low confidence). Ongoing uncertainties in palaeo sea level reconstructions and modelling hamper conclusions regarding the total magnitudes and rates of past sea level rise (SLR). Furthermore, the long (multi-millennial) time scales of these past climate and sea level changes, and regional climate influences from changes in Earth’s orbital configuration and climate system feedbacks, lead to low confidence in direct comparisons with near-term future changes. {Cross-Chapter Box 5 in Chapter 1, 4.2.2,,, SM 4.1}

Non-climatic anthropogenic drivers, including recent and historical demographic and settlement trends and anthropogenic subsidence, have played an important role in increasing low-lying coastal communities’ exposure and vulnerability to SLR and extreme sea level (ESL) events (very high confidence). In coastal deltas, for example, these drivers have altered freshwater and sediment availability (high confidence). In low-lying coastal areas more broadly, human-induced changes can be rapid and modify coastlines over short periods of time, outpacing the effects of SLR (high confidence).Adaptation can be undertaken in the short- to medium-term by targeting local drivers of exposure and vulnerability, notwithstanding uncertainty about local SLR impacts in coming decades and beyond (high confidence). {, 4.3.1,,}

Coastal ecosystems are already impacted by the combination of SLR, other climate-related ocean changes, and adverse effects from human activities on ocean and land (high confidence). Attributing such impacts to SLR, however, remains challenging due to the influence of other climate-related and non-climatic drivers such as infrastructure development and human-induced habitat degradation (highconfidence). Coastal ecosystems, including saltmarshes, mangroves, vegetated dunes and sandy beaches, can build vertically and expand laterally in response to SLR, though this capacity varies across sites (high confidence). These ecosystems provide important services that include coastal protection and habitat for diverse biota. However, as a consequence of human actions that fragment wetland habitats and restrict landward migration, coastal ecosystems progressively lose their ability to adapt to climate-induced changes and provide ecosystem services, including acting as protective barriers (high confidence). {}

Coastal risk is dynamic and increased by widely observed changes in coastal infrastructure, community livelihoods, agriculture and habitability (high confidence). As with coastal ecosystems, attribution of observed changes and associated risk to SLR remains challenging. Drivers and processes inhibiting attribution include demographic, resource and land use changes and anthropogenic subsidence. {4.3.3, 4.3.4}

A diversity of adaptation responses to coastal impacts and risks have been implemented around the world, but mostly as a reaction to current coastal risk or experienced disasters (high confidence). Hard coastal protection measures (dikes, embankments, sea walls and surge barriers) are widespread, providing predictable levels of safety in northwest Europe, East Asia, and around many coastal cities and deltas. Ecosystem-based adaptation (EbA) is continuing to gain traction worldwide, providing multiple co-benefits, but there is still low agreement on its cost and long-term effectiveness. Advance, which refers to the creation of new land by building into the sea (e.g., land reclamation), has a long history in most areas where there are dense coastal populations.Accommodation measures, such as early warning systems (EWS) for ESL events, are widespread. Retreat is observed but largely restricted to small communities or carried out for the purpose of creating new wetland habitat. {,,}


Future rise in GMSL caused by thermal expansion, melting of glaciers and ice sheets and land water storage changes, is strongly dependent on which Representative Concentration Pathway (RCP) emission scenario is followed. SLR at the end of the century is projected to be faster under all scenarios, including those compatible with achieving the long-term temperature goal set out in the Paris Agreement. GMSL will rise between 0.43 m (0.29–0.59 m, likely range; RCP2.6) and 0.84 m (0.61–1.10 m, likely range; RCP8.5) by 2100 (medium confidence) relative to 1986–2005. Beyond 2100, sea level will continue to rise for centuries due to continuing deep ocean heat uptake and mass loss of the GIS and AIS and will remain elevated for thousands of years (high confidence).Under RCP8.5, estimates for 2100 are higher and the uncertainty range larger than in AR5. Antarctica could contribute up to 28 cm of SLR (RCP8.5, upper end of likely range) by the end of the century (medium confidence).Estimates of SLR higher than the likely range are also provided here for decision makers with low risk tolerance. {SR1.5, 4.1,,}

Under RCP8.5, the rate of SLR will be 15 mm yr–1 (10–20 mm yr–1, likely range) in 2100, and could exceed several cm yr–1 in the 22nd century. These high rates challenge the implementation of adaptation measures that involve a long lead time, but this has not yet been studied in detail. {,}

Processes controlling the timing of future ice shelf loss and the spatial extent of ice sheet instabilities could increase Antarctica’s contribution to SLR to values higher than the likely range on century and longer time scales (low confidence). Evolution of the AIS beyond the end of the 21st century is characterized by deep uncertainty as ice sheet models lack realistic representations of some of the underlying physical processes. The few model studies available addressing time scales of centuries to millennia indicate multi-metre (2.3–5.4 m) rise in sea level for RCP8.5 (low confidence). There is low confidence in threshold temperatures for ice sheet instabilities and the rates of GMSL rise they can produce. {Cross-Chapter Box 5 in Chapter 1, Cross-Chapter Box 8 in Chapter 3, and Sections 4.1,,,}

Sea level rise is not globally uniform and varies regionally. Thermal expansion, ocean dynamics and land ice loss contributions will generate regional departures of about ±30% around the GMSL rise. Differences from the global mean can be greater than ±30% in areas of rapid vertical land movements, including those caused by local anthropogenic factors such as groundwater extraction (high confidence). Subsidence caused by human activities is currently the most important cause of relative sea level rise (RSL) change in many delta regions. While the comparative importance of climate-driven RSL rise will increase over time, these findings on anthropogenic subsidence imply that a consideration of local processes is critical for projections of sea level impacts at local scales (high confidence). {,}

Due to projected GMSL rise, ESLs that are historically rare (for example, today’s hundred-year event) will become common by 2100 under all RCPs (high confidence). Many low-lying cities and small islands at most latitudes will experience such events annually by 2050. Greenhouse gas (GHG) mitigation envisioned in low-emission scenarios (e.g., RCP2.6) is expected to sharply reduce but not eliminate risk to low-lying coasts and islands from SLR and ESL events. Low-emission scenarios lead to slower rates of SLR and allow for a wider range of adaptation options. For the first half of the 21st century differences in ESL events among the scenarios are small, facilitating adaptation planning. {,}

Non-climatic anthropogenic drivers will continue to increase the exposure and vulnerability of coastal communities to future SLR and ESL events in the absence of major adaptation efforts compared to today (high confidence). {4.3.4, Cross-Chapter Box 9}

The expected impacts of SLR on coastal ecosystems over the course of the century include habitat contraction, loss of functionality and biodiversity, and lateral and inland migration. Impacts will be exacerbated in cases of land reclamation and where anthropogenic barriers prevent inland migration of marshes and mangroves and limit the availability and relocation of sediment (high confidence). Under favourable conditions, marshes and mangroves have been found to keep pace with fast rates of SLR (e.g., >10 mm yr–1), but this capacity varies significantly depending on factors such as wave exposure of the location, tidal range, sediment trapping, overall sediment availability and coastal squeeze (high confidence). {}

In the absence of adaptation, more intense and frequent ESL events, together with trends in coastal development will increase expected annual flood damages by 2–3 orders of magnitude by 2100 (high confidence). However, well designed coastal protection is very effective in reducing expected damages and cost efficient for urban and densely populated regions, but generally unaffordable for rural and poorer areas (high confidence). Effective protection requires investments on the order of tens to several hundreds of billions of USD yr–1 globally (high confidence). While investments are generally cost efficient for densely populated and urban areas (high confidence), rural and poorer areas will be challenged to afford such investments with relative annual costs for some small island states amounting to several percent of GDP (high confidence). Even with well-designed hard protection, the risk of possibly disastrous consequences in the event of failure of defences remains. {4.3.4,,, Cross-Chapter Box 9}

Risk related to SLR (including erosion, flooding and salinisation) is expected to significantly increase by the end of this century along all low-lying coasts in the absence of major additional adaptation efforts (veryhigh confidence). While only urban atoll islands and some Arctic communities are expected to experience moderate to high risk relative to today in a low emission pathway, almost high to very high risks are expected in all 325Sea Level Rise and Implications for Low-Lying Islands, Coasts and Communities Chapter 44low-lying coastal settings at the upper end of the likely range for high emission pathways (medium confidence). However, the transition from moderate to high and from high to very high risk will vary from one coastal setting to another (high confidence). While a slower rate of SLR enables greater opportunities for adapting, adaptation benefits are also expected to vary between coastal settings. Although ambitious adaptation will not necessarily eradicate end-century SLR risk (medium confidence), it will help to buy time in many locations and therefore help to lay a robust foundation for adaptation beyond 2100. {4.1.3, 4.3.4, Box 4.1, SM4.2}

Choosing and Implementing Responses

All types of responses to SLR, including protection, accommodation, EbA, advance and retreat, have important and synergistic roles to play in an integrated and sequenced response to SLR (high confidence). Hard protection and advance (building into the sea) are economically efficient in most urban contexts facing land scarcity (high confidence), but can lead to increased exposure in the long term. Where sufficient space is available, EbA can both reduce coastal risks and provide multiple other benefits (medium confidence). Accommodation such as flood proofing buildings and EWS for ESL events are often both low-cost and highly cost-efficient in all contexts (high confidence). Where coastal risks are already high, and population size and density are low, or in the aftermath of a coastal disaster, retreat may be especially effective, albeit socially, culturally and politically challenging. {,,,,, 4.4.3}

Technical limits to hard protection are expected to be reached under high emission scenarios (RCP8.5) beyond 2100 (high confidence)and biophysical limits to EbA may arise during the 21st century, but economic and social barriers arise well before the end of the century (medium confidence). Economic challenges to hard protection increase with higher sea levels and will make adaptation unaffordable before technical limits are reached (high confidence). Drivers other than SLR are expected to contribute more to biophysical limits of EbA. For corals, limits may be reached during this century, due to ocean acidification and ocean warming, and for tidal wetlands due to pollution and infrastructure limiting their inland migration. Limits to accommodation are expected to occur well before limits to protection occur. Limits to retreat are uncertain, reflecting research gaps. Social barriers (including governance challenges) to adaptation are already encountered. {,,,,, 4.4.3, Cross-Chapter Box 9}

Choosing and implementing responses to SLR presents society with profound governance challenges and difficult social choices, which are inherently political and value laden (high confidence). The large uncertainties about post 2050 SLR, and the substantial impact expected, challenge established planning and decision making practises and introduce the need for coordination within and between governance levels and policy domains. SLR responses also raise equity concerns about marginalising those most vulnerable and could potentially spark or compound social conflict (high confidence). Choosing and implementing responses is further challenged through a lack of resources, vexing trade-offs between safety, conservation and economic development, multiple ways of framing the ‘sea level rise problem’, power relations, and various coastal stakeholders having conflicting interests in the future development of heavily used coastal zones (high confidence). {4.4.2, 4.4.3}

Despite the large uncertainties about post 2050 SLR, adaptation decisions can be made now, facilitated by using decision analysis methods specifically designed to address uncertainty (high confidence). These methods favour flexible responses (i.e., those that can be adapted over time) and periodically adjusted decisions (i.e., adaptive decision making). They use robustness criteria (i.e., effectiveness across a range of circumstances) for evaluating alternative responses instead of standard expected utility criteria (high confidence). One example is adaptation pathway analysis, which has emerged as a low-cost tool to assess long-term coastal responses as sequences of adaptive decisions in the face of dynamic coastal risk characterised by deep uncertainty (medium evidence, high agreement). The range of SLR to be considered in decisions depends on the risk tolerance of stakeholders, with stakeholders whose risk tolerance is low also considering SLR higher than the likely range. {4.1,}

Adaptation experience to date demonstrates that using a locally appropriate combination of decision analysis, land use planning, public participation and conflict resolution approaches can help to address the governance challenges faced in responding to SLR (high confidence). Effective SLR responses depend, first, on taking a long-term perspective when making short-term decisions, explicitly accounting for uncertainty of locality-specific risks beyond 2050 (high confidence), and building governance capabilities to tackle the complexity of SLR risk (medium evidence, high agreement). Second, improved coordination of SLR responses across scales, sectors and policy domains can help to address SLR impacts and risk (high confidence). Third, prioritising consideration of social vulnerability and equity underpins efforts to promote fair and just climate resilience and sustainable development (high confidence) and can be helped by creating safe community arenas for meaningful public deliberation and conflict resolution (medium evidence, high agreement). Finally, public awareness and understanding about SLR risks and responses can be improved by drawing on local, indigenous and scientific knowledge systems, together with social learning about locality-specific SLR risk and response potential (high confidence). {, 4.4.5, Table 4.9}

Achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and charting Climate Resilient Development Pathways depends in part on ambitious and sustained mitigation efforts to contain SLR coupled with effective adaptation actions to reduce SLR impacts and risk (medium evidence, high agreement).

  • Publisher: The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)
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