Sea level change: lessons from the geologic record

Fact Sheet 117-95



Rising sea level is potentially one of the most serious impacts of climatic change. Even a small sea level rise would have serious economic consequences because it would cause extensive damage to the world's coastal regions. Sea level can rise in the future because the ocean surface can expand due to warming and because polar ice sheets and mountain glaciers can melt, increasing the ocean's volume of water. Today, ice caps on Antarctica and Greenland contain 91 and 8 percent of the world's ice, respectively. The world's mountain glaciers together contain only about 1 percent. Melting all this ice would raise sea level about 80 meters. Although this extreme scenario is not expected, geologists know that sea level can rise and fall rapidly due to changing volume of ice on continents. For example, during the last ice age, about 18,000 years ago, continental ice sheets contained more than double the modem volume of ice. As ice sheets melted, sea level rose 2 to 3 meters per century, and possibly faster during certain times. During periods in which global climate was very warm, polar ice was reduced and sea level was higher than today.

Study Area

Publication type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Title Sea level change: lessons from the geologic record
Series title Fact Sheet
Series number 117-95
DOI 10.3133/fs11795
Year Published 1995
Language English
Publisher U.S. Geological Survey
Description 2 p.
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