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Dr. Tal Ezer, Old Dominion University – Uneven Sea Level Rise

In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. Tal Ezer of Old Dominion University explains why one section of the Atlantic coast is more vulnerable to sea level rise than others.

Tal Ezer is Professor of Ocean, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, at the Center for Coastal Physical Oceanography of Old Dominion University. His current research, as part of the University’s Climate Change and Sea Level Rise Initiative, uses computer models and data analysis to study ocean circulation and climate change. He holds a Ph.D. in Physical Oceanography from Florida State University.

About Dr. Ezer

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Dr. Tal Ezer – Uneven Sea Level Rise

In late October last year Superstorm Sandy hit the East Coast of the United States, causing severe coastal flooding along the New Jersey shore and New York City, where storm surge water level reached the highest level in possibly 300 years. It is unclear if climate change influenced the formation of this unusually big storm; however, global sea level rise had increased the impact of the storm’s flood- adding about a foot of water over the past 100 years on top of the already high storm surge.

Global sea level rise has been measured for more than 100 years and the data show that sea level is not rising evenly.  The Mid-Atlantic coast of the United States is one of those regions where sea level rise is much faster than normal and rates are increasing, making the region a “hotspot of accelerated sea level rise.” But why is this happening?

Besides geological processes that are known to cause land to locally slowly sink while global sea level is rising, new findings put part of the blame on climate related shift in ocean currents. We found evidence in satellite data that over the past decade the Gulf Stream, which flows off the mid-Atlantic coast, started to slow down, and this change was found to be highly correlated with rising seas along the mid-Atlantic coast.This new finding confirms results of computer models that had predicted a slowdown in the Atlantic Ocean circulation under warmer climate conditions.

And finally, let me clarify that while climate change is affecting ocean currents and sea level, it is very unlikely to completely shut off the Gulf Stream with catastrophic consequences as those depicted in science fiction movies like “The day after tomorrow.” Nevertheless, sea level rise will cause an increase in flooding from each future storm as demonstrated by Sandy.    

Production support for the Academic Minute comes from Newman’s Own, giving all profits to charity and pursuing the common good for over 30 years, and from Mount Holyoke College.

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