Research ArticleCLIMATE CHANGE

Future extreme sea level seesaws in the tropical Pacific

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Science Advances  25 Sep 2015:
Vol. 1, no. 8, e1500560
DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1500560

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Global mean sea levels are projected to gradually rise in response to greenhouse warming. However, on shorter time scales, modes of natural climate variability in the Pacific, such as the El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO), can affect regional sea level variability and extremes, with considerable impacts on coastal ecosystems and island nations. How these shorter-term sea level fluctuations will change in association with a projected increase in extreme El Niño and its atmospheric variability remains unknown. Using present-generation coupled climate models forced with increasing greenhouse gas concentrations and subtracting the effect of global mean sea level rise, we find that climate change will enhance El Niño–related sea level extremes, especially in the tropical southwestern Pacific, where very low sea level events, locally known as Taimasa, are projected to double in occurrence. Additionally, and throughout the tropical Pacific, prolonged interannual sea level inundations are also found to become more likely with greenhouse warming and increased frequency of extreme La Niña events, thus exacerbating the coastal impacts of the projected global mean sea level rise.

  • El Niño-Southern Oscillation
  • sea level variability
  • greenhouse warming
  • climate models

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