Historic sea-level rise predicted by NASA and government task force

UCLA's Laurence Smith deployed this autonomous drifter in a meltwater river on the surface of the Greenland ice sheet in July 2015 as part of an effort to understand the causes of sea level rise around the globe.
UCLA's Laurence Smith deployed this autonomous drifter in a meltwater river on the surface of the Greenland ice sheet in July 2015 as part of an effort to understand the causes of sea level rise around the globe. (Image credit: NASA/Jefferson Beck)

As climate change continues to progress, so will its effects. In a new collaborative report, NASA and other U.S. government agencies have found that sea levels will rise up to a foot by 2050. 

The report (opens in new tab), which comes from a sea level rise task force that includes a number of government agencies including NASA as well as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), has concluded that sea levels along U.S. coastlines will, on average, rise between 10 and 12 inches (25 to 30 centimeters) above today's levels by 2050. This means that, in just 30 years, ocean height could rise as much as it has risen in the past 100 years. 

This new report includes "the most up-to-date, long term sea level rise projections for all of the United States and Territories," NOAA Administrator Rich Spinrad said during a news conference Tuesday (Feb. 15), adding that "what we're reporting out today is historic."

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"The science is very clear," NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said during the same news conference, "and that means it's past time to take action to address this climate crisis."

Nelson didn't skirt around the problem and its source, specifying that "the science of the last 20 years has settled the question of human behavior that is driving this climate change."

"It's important to underscore that this report supports previous studies and confirms what we've known all along," Nelson said. "Sea levels are continuing to rise at a very alarming rate, and it's endangering communities around the world."

"Climate change is causing sea levels to rise, ocean surface temperatures to warm and moisture to build in the atmosphere. And all of these facts are leading to more intense and destructive storms," Nelson added. 

This report is the update to a 2017 report (opens in new tab) and it forecasts sea levels all the way to 2150. However, this is the first time that the report has projected sea levels just 30 years into the future; earlier reports have only examined the effects over longer timescales. 

"Agencies at the federal, state and local levels use these reports to inform their plans on anticipating and coping with the effects of sea level rise," a statement (opens in new tab)from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California reads.

Nelson shared how NASA is working on issues related to climate change.

"NASA is steadfast in our commitment to protecting our home planet by expanding our monitoring capabilities and continuing to ensure our climate data is not only accessible but understandable," Nelson said in the statement.

"Over the next decade, NASA is going to put up five great observatories (opens in new tab) ... to give us precision in our understanding of what's happening to the atmosphere, to the ice, to the landmasses and to the waters," Nelson said.

Nelson highlighted the agency's Surface Water and Ocean Topography, or SWOT, mission that will "for the first time give us the elevation of our lakes, rivers and streams, in addition to what we know on the elevation of the seas." NASA is currently planning to launch SWOT in November, using a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. 

He added that the other agencies on the task force, as well as the president's administration, are serious about continuing to collect important data and working to combat the effects of climate change.

"This administration, the Biden-Harris administration's response to climate change, it matches this threat," Nelson said, adding that this moment requires "all hands on deck."

Spinrad echoed Nelson's "all hands on deck" sentiment, stating that "This report is a wake up call for the United States, but it's a wake-up call that comes with a silver lining. It provides us with information needed to act now to best position ourselves for the future. It's going to take all of us — government, businesses, academia, community citizens — to make a difference in the future."

Email Chelsea Gohd at cgohd@space.com or follow her on Twitter @chelsea_gohd (opens in new tab). Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom (opens in new tab) and on Facebook.

Space.com

Chelsea Gohd joined Space.com as an intern in the summer of 2018 and returned as a Staff Writer in 2019. After receiving a B.S. in Public Health, she worked as a science communicator at the American Museum of Natural History. Chelsea has written for publications including Scientific American, Discover Magazine Blog, Astronomy Magazine, Live Science, All That is Interesting, AMNH Microbe Mondays blog, The Daily Targum and Roaring Earth. When not writing, reading or following the latest space and science discoveries, Chelsea is writing music, singing, playing guitar and performing with her band Foxanne (@foxannemusic). You can follow her on Twitter @chelsea_gohd.