Understanding Sea Level Rise

Clarification Statement: Examples could include the influence of the ocean on ecosystems, landform shape, and climate; the influence of the atmosphere on landforms and ecosystems through weather and climate; and the influence of mountain ranges on winds and clouds in the atmosphere. The geosphere, hydrosphere, atmosphere, and biosphere are each a system. 


Assessment Boundary: Assessment is limited to the interactions of two systems at a time.

Table of Contents
Representative Image

Build your own island to investigate how the melting of glaciers and icebergs will affect sea level.
This activity builds on the content below to help students understand how the atmosphere interacts with the hydrosphere.
The above teacher guide is a presentation about the greenhouse effect (from the original SEA curriculum). Note: the pdf has presenter notes in yellow boxes in the upper, left corner.

Earth's Systems


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Fig. 1. Earth’s systems (geosphere, hydrosphere, atmosphere, and biosphere) are dynamic; they interact and react to changing influences, including human activities.

Image copyright and source

Earth’s surface is a complex and dynamic set of interconnected systems—the geosphere, hydrosphere, atmosphere, and biosphere (Fig. 1)—that interact over a wide range of temporal and spatial scales. Weather and climate are shaped by the complex interactions of the ocean, the atmosphere, sunlight, clouds, ice, land, and life forms. Earth’s biosphere has changed the makeup of the geosphere, hydrosphere, and atmosphere over geological time. Geologic events and conditions have also affected the evolution of life on Earth. Components of Earth’s systems may remain relatively stable, change slowly, or change abruptly, with significant consequences for living organisms. Changes in one system can cause further changes to that system or to other systems—often in surprising and complex ways. This topic explores how humans have contributed to the influence of the atmosphere on landforms and ecosystems through weather and climate.

Weather and Climate

Weather is all around us and has a profound influence on our day-to-day lives. Weather affects how and where we live, what we do each day, what we wear, and what we eat. Weather describes the day-to-day conditions of the atmosphere at a particular location.  While weather varies from day-to-day at any particular location, over the years, the same type of weather patterns generally re-occur. This recurring weather pattern is known as climate—the average weather conditions in a particular place over a long period of time.

Climate Change

Climate change is a broad term that describes the changing of environmental conditions throughout the Earth’s history. Changes in climate can result from natural events, such as volcanic eruptions, changes in the Earth’s orbit, or changes in the amount of energy released from the sun. Human activities also affect the chemical composition of the atmosphere and influence the Earth’s climate.

The predicted effects of current climate change vary by location and, as a result, climate change will have different effects on humans and ecosystems—depending on their location on the planet. In general, scientists belonging to the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) conclude that global climate change is expected to lead to the following changes of our Earth’s weather and climate patterns over the next century:


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Fig. 2. A snap shot of Sea Surface Temperatures (SST) in 2006. For an interactive exploration of SST change from 2000-2006, follow the NOAA link below. (Note: Flash required to run animation.)

Image copyright and source

Image courtesy of NOAA

  • increased air and sea temperatures (Fig. 2)
  • rises in sea level
  • changes in weather patterns
  • more frequent storms
  • droughts
  • floods
  • other extreme weather in some places
  • changes in the seawater chemistry due to increased carbon dioxide concentrations

A Warming Atmosphere

Since the start of the Industrial Revolution in the 1700's, humans have been drastically increasing the amount of gases, like carbon dioxide (CO2), in the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels and deforesting (removing trees and green plants). The most significant climate change in modern times is the warming of our Earth. Earth’s temperature has increased by 0.7℃ (1.3℉) over the
 last 100 years. The naturally occurring gasses in the atmosphere act as a greenhouse—trapping heat energy from the sun, which gives them the name greenhouse gasses. Greenhouse gases are actually very important to making Earth a habitable place to live. Without the blanket of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, Earth would be, on average, about 15℃ (60℉) cooler, making our climate much colder.


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Fig. 3. This diagram shows how the greenhouse effect of the atmosphere influencing our weather and climate.


Image copyright and source

Image courtesy of the Myron B. MBTA (MBTA) curriculum from SOEST

Sea Level Changes

With increases in CO2, evidence of Earth’s warming can be found worldwide. In particular, many of the world’s glaciers are retreating, melting, or shrinking—not only in area but also in thickness. In Alaska, an average of 1.8 m (6 ft) of glacier thickness is being lost each year. This is more than twice the annual rate observed from the 1950s to the mid-1990s. Sea level is also rising—over the last hundred years, sea level has increased an average of 15 cm (7 in.). Melting glaciers account for some sea level rise. Warming ocean temperatures also contribute to higher sea level because water volume expands as water warms (assuming that pressure stays the same).


Climate Change Impact in Hawai'i

The most immediate change threatening Hawai‘i and other Pacific Islands will no doubt be a result of sea level rise. Recent IPCC projections are for a sea-level rise of 48 cm (about 1.5 feet) by 2100. Globally, 100,000,000 people live within approximately 1 m (3.3 feet) of present day sea level, including most of Hawai‘i’s population. Rise in sea-surface temperatures (SST) will also contribute to complications. Some effects of sea level rise and warming are:

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    Fig. 4. Coral bleaching is a stress response to high temperatures. These two corals from the Great Barrier Reef in Australia exhibit different responses; with the front looking fully bleached and the back healthy.

    Image copyright and source

    Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

    Increases in intensity and frequency of storm surges,

  • Increased coastal erosion resulting in loss of land and livelihood from tourism,
  • loss of important wetlands and mangroves,
  • Reduced availability of fresh water due to seawater intrusion into Hawai‘i’s coastal freshwater aquifers
  • Rise in SST are redicted to be 1.4–5.8°C (2.7-7.7°F)
  • Coral bleaching
  • Impacts on fisheries as reefs decline and influence other species of fish that depend on the reef




Sea Level Rise Viewers

Use these web mapping tools to visualize community-level impacts from coastal flooding or sea level rise (up to 10 feet above average high tides). Photo simulations of how future flooding might impact local landmarks are also provided, as well as data related to water depth, connectivity, flood frequency, socio-economic vulnerability, wetland loss and migration, and mapping confidence.

Hawaiʻi Sea Level Rise Viewer (You can zoom in to specific areas across Hawaiʻi)

NOAA Digital Coast Sea Level Rise Viewer

Sea Level Rise Vocabulary

  • Atmosphere: the envelope of gases surrounding the earth or another planet.
  • Biosphere: the regions of the surface, atmosphere, and hydrosphere of the earth (or analogous parts of other planets) occupied by living organisms.
  • Carbon Dioxide: a colorless, odorless gas naturally found in Earth's atmosphere. Also produced by burning carbon and organic compounds and by respiration. Used in photosynthesis.
  • Climate: the long-term average of conditions in the atmosphere (weather), ocean, ice sheets on land and sea ice.
  • Climate Change: a change in global or regional climate patterns, typically attributed to an increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide produced by our use of fossil fuels.
  • Geosphere: that portion of the Earth system that includes the Earth's interior, rocks and minerals, landforms and the processes that shape the Earth's surface.
  • Glacier: a slowly moving mass of ice formed by the accumulation and compaction of snow on mountains or near the poles.
  • Greenhouse Gas: a natural component of the atmosphere that helps Earth retain heat energy from solar radiation.
  • Hydrosphere: all the waters on the earth's surface, such as lakes and seas, and sometimes including water over the earth's surface, such as clouds.
  • Industrial Revolution: a major period in human history when agriculture and manufacturing services where greatly enhanced due to the development of power-driven machinery.
  • Renewable energy: Energy produced from sources that do not deplete or can be replenished within a human's life time (ex. wind, solar, wave)
  • Weather: the state of the atmosphere at a place and time as regards heat, dryness, sunshine, wind, rain, etc.


Exploring Our Fluid Earth, a product of the Curriculum Research & Development Group (CRDG), College of Education. University of Hawai?i, 2011. This document may be freely reproduced and distributed for non-profit educational purposes.