Mean sea level (MSL) is the average (mean) height of the sea, with reference to a suitable reference surface. Defining the reference level', however, involves complex measurement, and accurately determining MSL can prove difficult.
- 1 Measurement
- 2 Difficulties in utilization
- 3 Sea level and dry land
- 4 Sea level change
- 5 Recent changes
- 6 Aviation
- 7 See also
- 8 Notes
- 9 References
- 10 External links
To an operator of a tide gauge, MSL means the "still water level"—the level of the sea with motions such as wind waves averaged out—averaged over a period of time such that changes in sea level, e.g., due to the tides, also get averaged out. One measures the values of MSL in respect to the land. Hence a change in MSL can result from a real change in sea level, or from a change in the height of the land on which the tide gauge operates.
In the UK, mean sea level has been measured at Newlyn in Cornwall and Liverpool on Merseyside for decades, by tide gauges to provide Ordnance Datum for the zero metres height on UK maps.
Satellite altimeters have been making precise measurements of sea level since the launch of TOPEX/Poseidon in 1992. A joint mission of NASA and CNES, TOPEX/Poseidon was followed by Jason-1 in 2001 and the Ocean Surface Topography Mission on the Jason-2 satellite in 2008.
Difficulties in utilization
To extend this definition far from the sea means comparing the local height of the mean sea surface with a "level" reference surface, or datum, called the geoid. In a state of rest or absence of external forces, the mean sea level would coincide with this geoid surface, being an equipotential surface of the Earth's gravitational field. In reality, due to currents, air pressure variations, temperature and salinity variations, etc., this does not occur, not even as a long term average. The location-dependent, but persistent in time, separation between mean sea level and the geoid is referred to as (stationary) sea surface topography. It varies globally in a range of ± 2 m.
Traditionally, one had to process sea-level measurements to take into account the effect of the 228-month Metonic cycle and the 223-month eclipse cycle on the tides. Mean sea level does not remain constant over the surface of the entire earth. For instance, mean sea level at the Pacific end of the Panama Canal stands 20 cm (8 in) higher than at the Atlantic end.
Sea level and dry land
Several terms are used to describe the changing relationships between sea level and dry land. When the term "relative" is used, it connotes change that is not attributed to any specific cause. The term "eustatic" refers to global changes in the sea level due to water mass added (or removed from) the oceans (e.g. melting of ice sheets). The term "steric" refers to global changes in sea level due to thermal expansion and salinity variations. The term "isostatic" refers to changes in the level of the land masses due to thermal buoyancy or tectonic effects and implies no real change in the volume of water in the oceans. The melting of glaciers at the end of ice ages is an example of eustatic sea level rise. The subsidence of land due to the withdrawal of groundwater is an isostatic cause of relative sea level rise. Paleoclimatologists can track sea level by examining the rocks deposited along coasts that are very tectonically stable, like the east coast of North America. Areas like volcanic islands are experiencing relative sea level rise as a result of isostatic cooling of the rock which causes the land to sink.
On other planets that lack a liquid ocean, planetologists can calculate a "mean altitude" by averaging the heights of all points on the surface. This altitude, sometimes referred to as a "sea level", serves equivalently as a reference for the height of planetary features.
Sea level change
Local and eustatic sea level
Local mean sea level (LMSL) is defined as the height of the sea with respect to a land benchmark, averaged over a period of time (such as a month or a year) long enough that fluctuations caused by waves and tides are smoothed out. One must adjust perceived changes in LMSL to account for vertical movements of the land, which can be of the same order (mm/yr) as sea level changes. Some land movements occur because of isostatic adjustment of the mantle to the melting of ice sheets at the end of the last ice age. The weight of the ice sheet depresses the underlying land, and when the ice melts away the land slowly rebounds. Atmospheric pressure, ocean currents and local ocean temperature changes also can affect LMSL.
Eustatic change (as opposed to local change) results in an alteration to the global sea levels, such as changes in the volume of water in the world oceans or changes in the volume of an ocean basin.
Short term and periodic changes
There are many factors which can produce short-term (a few minutes to 14 months) changes in sea level.
|Short-term (periodic) causes
| Time scale
(P = period)
|Periodic sea level changes
|Diurnal and semidiurnal astronomical tides
|12–24 h P
|Rotational variations (Chandler wobble)
|14 month P
|Meteorological and oceanographic fluctuations
|Hours to months
|–0.7 to 1.3 m
|Winds (storm surges)
|Up to 5 m
|Evaporation and precipitation (may also follow long-term pattern)
|Days to weeks
|Ocean surface topography (changes in water density and currents)
|Days to weeks
|Up to 1 m
|El Niño/southern oscillation
|6 mo every 5–10 yr
|Up to 0.6 m
|Seasonal water balance among oceans (Atlantic, Pacific, Indian)
|Seasonal variations in slope of water surface
|Seasonal water density changes (temperature and salinity)
|Seiches (standing waves)
|Minutes to hours
|Up to 2 m
|Tsunamis (generate catastrophic long-period waves)
|Up to 10 m
|Abrupt change in land level
|Up to 10 m
Longer term changes
Various factors affect the volume or mass of the ocean, leading to long-term changes in eustatic sea level. The two primary influences are temperature (because the volume of water depends on temperature), and the mass of water locked up on land and sea as water in rivers, lakes, glaciers, polar ice caps, and sea ice. Over much longer geological timescales, changes in the shape of the oceanic basins and in land/sea distribution will affect sea level.
Observational and modelling studies of mass loss from glaciers and ice caps indicate a contribution to sea-level rise of 0.2 to 0.4 mm/yr averaged over the 20th century.
Glaciers and ice caps
Each year about 8 mm (0.3 inch) of water from the entire surface of the oceans falls into the Antarctica and Greenland ice sheets as snowfall. If no ice returned to the oceans, sea level would drop 8 mm every year. To a first approximation, the same amount of water appeared to return to the ocean in icebergs and from ice melting at the edges. Scientists previously had estimated which is greater, ice going in or coming out, called the mass balance, important because it causes changes in global sea level. High-precision gravimetry from satellites in low-noise flight has since determined Greenland is losing millions of tons per year, in accordance with loss estimates from ground measurement.
Ice shelves float on the surface of the sea and, if they melt, to first order they do not change sea level. Likewise, the melting of the northern polar ice cap which is composed of floating pack ice would not significantly contribute to rising sea levels. Because they are fresh, however, their melting would cause a very small increase in sea levels, so small that it is generally neglected. It can however be argued that if ice shelves melt it is a precursor to the melting of ice sheets on Greenland and Antarctica.
- Scientists previously lacked knowledge of changes in terrestrial storage of water. Surveying of water retention by soil absorption and by reservoirs outright ("impoundment") at just under the volume of Lake Superior agreed with a dam-building peak in the 1930s-1970s timespan. Such impoundment masked tens of millimeters of sea level rise in that span. ( Impact of Artificial Reservoir Water Impoundment on Global Sea Level B. F. Chao,* Y. H. Wu, Y. S. Li).
- If small glaciers and polar ice caps on the margins of Greenland and the Antarctic Peninsula melt, the projected rise in sea level will be around 0.5 m. Melting of the Greenland ice sheet would produce 7.2 m of sea-level rise, and melting of the Antarctic ice sheet would produce 61.1 m of sea level rise. The collapse of the grounded interior reservoir of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet would raise sea level by 5-6 m.
- The snowline altitude is the altitude of the lowest elevation interval in which minimum annual snow cover exceeds 50%. This ranges from about 5,500 metres above sea-level at the equator down to sea level at about 70° N&S latitude, depending on regional temperature amelioration effects. Permafrost then appears at sea level and extends deeper below sea level polewards.
- As most of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets lie above the snowline and/or base of the permafrost zone, they cannot melt in a timeframe much less than several millennia; therefore it is likely that they will not, through melting, contribute significantly to sea level rise in the coming century. They can, however, do so through acceleration in flow and enhanced iceberg calving.
- Climate changes during the 20th century are estimated from modelling studies to have led to contributions of between –0.2 and 0.0 mm/yr from Antarctica (the results of increasing precipitation) and 0.0 to 0.1 mm/yr from Greenland (from changes in both precipitation and runoff).
- Estimates suggest that Greenland and Antarctica have contributed 0.0 to 0.5 mm/yr over the 20th century as a result of long-term adjustment to the end of the last ice age.
The current rise in sea level observed from tide gauges, of about 1.8 mm/yr, is within the estimate range from the combination of factors above but active research continues in this field. The terrestrial storage term, thought to be highly uncertain, is no longer positive, and shown to be quite large.
At times during Earth's long history, continental drift has arranged the land masses into very different configurations from those of today. When there were large amounts of continental crust near the poles, the rock record shows unusually low sea levels during ice ages, because there was lots of polar land mass upon which snow and ice could accumulate. During times when the land masses clustered around the equator, ice ages had much less effect on sea level. However, over most of geologic time, long-term sea level has been higher than today (see graph above). Only at the Permian-Triassic boundary ~250 million years ago was long-term sea level lower than today. Long term changes in sea level are the result of changes in the oceanic crust, with a downward trend expected to continue in the very long term. Long-Term Sea-Level Fluctuations Driven by Ocean Basin Dynamics
During the glacial/interglacial cycles over the past few million years, sea level has varied by somewhat more than a hundred metres. This is primarily due to the growth and decay of ice sheets (mostly in the northern hemisphere) with water evaporated from the sea.
The Mediterranean Basin's gradual growth as the Neotethys basin, begun in the Jurassic, did not suddenly affect ocean levels. While the Mediterranean was forming during the past 100 million years, the average ocean level was generally 200 meters above current levels. However, the largest known example of marine flooding was when the Atlantic breached the Strait of Gibraltar at the end of the Messinian Salinity Crisis about 5.2 million years ago. This restored Mediterranean sea levels at the sudden end of the period when that basin had dried up, apparently due to geologic forces in the area of the Strait.
|Range of effect
|Change in volume of ocean basins
|Plate tectonics and seafloor spreading (plate divergence/convergence) and change in seafloor elevation (mid-ocean volcanism)
|< 0.01 mm/yr
|Change in mass of ocean water
|Melting or accumulation of continental ice
|• Climate changes during the 20th century
|•• Antarctica (the results of increasing precipitation)
|-0.2 to 0.0 mm/yr
|•• Greenland (from changes in both precipitation and runoff)
|0.0 to 0.1 mm/yr
|• Long-term adjustment to the end of the last ice age
|•• Greenland and Antarctica contribution over 20th century
|0.0 to 0.5 mm/yr
|Release of water from earth's interior
|Release or accumulation of continental hydrologic reservoirs
|Uplift or subsidence of Earth's surface (Isostasy)
|Thermal-isostasy (temperature/density changes in earth's interior)
|Glacio-isostasy (loading or unloading of ice)
|Hydro-isostasy (loading or unloading of water)
|Volcano-isostasy (magmatic extrusions)
|Sediment-isostasy (deposition and erosion of sediments)
|< 4 mm/yr
|Vertical and horizontal motions of crust (in response to fault motions)
|Sediment compression into denser matrix (particularly significant in and near river deltas)
|Loss of interstitial fluids (withdrawal of groundwater or oil)
|≤ 55 mm/yr
|Departure from geoid
|Shifts in hydrosphere, aesthenosphere, core-mantle interface
|Shifts in earth's rotation, axis of spin, and precession of equinox
|External gravitational changes
|Evaporation and precipitation (if due to a long-term pattern)
Changes through geologic time
Sea level has changed over geologic time. As the graph shows, sea level today is very near the lowest level ever attained (the lowest level occurred at the Permian-Triassic boundary about 250 million years ago). For this reason, sea level is more prone to rise than fall today, and small changes in climate can have noticeable effects during human lifetimes.
During the most recent ice age (at its maximum about 20,000 years ago) the world's sea level was about 130 m lower than today, due to the large amount of sea water that had evaporated and been deposited as snow and ice, mostly in the Laurentide ice sheet. The majority of this had melted by about 10,000 years ago.
Hundreds of similar glacial cycles have occurred throughout the Earth's history. Geologists who study the positions of coastal sediment deposits through time have noted dozens of similar basinward shifts of shorelines associated with a later recovery. This results in sedimentary cycles which in some cases can be correlated around the world with great confidence. This relatively new branch of geological science linking eustatic sea level to sedimentary deposits is called sequence stratigraphy.
The most up-to-date chronology of sea level change during the Phanerozoic shows the following long term trends: 
- Gradually rising sea level through the Cambrian
- Relatively stable sea level in the Ordovician, with a large drop associated with the end-Ordovician glaciation
- Relative stability at the lower level during the Silurian
- A gradual fall through the Devonian, continuing through the Mississippian to long-term low at the Mississippian/Pennsylvanian boundary
- A gradual rise until the start of the Permian, followed by a gentle decrease lasting until the Mesozoic.
For at least the last 100 years. sea level has been rising at an average rate of about 1.8 mm per year. Some speculate that the majority of this rise can be attributed to human-induced global warming.
Using pressure to measure altitude results in two other types of altitude. Distance above true or MSL (mean sea level) is the next best measurement to absolute. MSL altitude is the distance above where sea level would be if there were no land. If one knows the elevation of terrain, the distance above the ground is calculated by a simple subtraction.
An MSL altitude—called pressure altitude by pilots—is useful for predicting physiological responses in unpressurized aircraft (see hypoxia). It also correlates with engine, propeller, and wing performance, which all decrease in thinner air.
Pilots can estimate height above terrain with an altimeter set to a defined barometric pressure. Generally, the pressure used to set the altimeter is the barometric pressure that would exist at MSL in the region being flown over. This pressure is referred to as either QNH or "altimeter" and is transmitted to the pilot by radio from air traffic control (ATC) or an Automatic Terminal Information Service (ATIS). Since the terrain elevation is also referenced to MSL, the pilot can estimate height above ground by subtracting the terrain altitude from the altimeter reading. Aviation charts are divided into boxes and the maximum terrain altitude from MSL in each box is clearly indicated. Once above the transition altitude (see below), the altimeter is set to the international standard atmosphere (ISA) pressure at MSL which is 1013.2 HPa or 29.92 inHg.
MSL is useful for aircraft to avoid terrain, but at high enough altitudes, there is no terrain to avoid. Above that level, pilots are primarily interested in avoiding each other, so adjust their altimeter to standard temperature and pressure conditions (average sea level pressure and temperature) and disregard actual barometric pressure—until descending below transition level. To distinguish from MSL, such altitudes are called flight levels. Standard pilot shorthand is to express flight level as hundreds of feet, so FL 240 is 24,000 feet (7,300 m). Pilots use the international standard pressure setting of 1013.25 hPa (29.92 inHg) when referring to Flight Levels. The altitude at which aircraft are mandated to set their altimeter to flight levels is called "transition altitude". It varies from country to country. For example in the U.S. it is 18,000 feet, in many European countries it is 3,000 or 5,000 feet.
- Above mean sea level
- List of places on land with elevations below sea level
- North West Shelf Operational Oceanographic System
- Sea level rise
- World Geodetic System
- Orthometric height
- Normal height
- Geopotential height
- Flood myth
- What is "Mean Sea Level"? Proudman Oceanographic Laboratory
- "Some physical characteristics of ice on Earth", Climate Change 2001: The Scientific Basis
- Geologic Contral on Fast Ice Flow - West Antarctic Ice Sheet. by Michael Studinger, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory
- GRID-Arendal, "Can 20th Century Sea Level Changes be Explained?", Climate Change 2001: The Scientific Basis, http://www.grida.no/climate/ipcc_tar/wg1/428.htm, retrieved 2005-12-19
- Haq, B. U. (2008). "A Chronology of Paleozoic Sea-Level Changes". Science 322: 64. doi:10.1126/science.1161648.
- Bruce C. Douglas (1997). "Global Sea Rise: A Redetermination". Surveys in Geophysics 18: 279–292. doi:10.1023/A:1006544227856.
- Nathaniel L. Bindoff, Jürgen Willebrand et al. (2007). Observations: Oceanic Climate Change and Sea Level. in Solomon, S., D. Qin, M. Manning, Z. Chen, M. Marquis, K.B. Averyt, M. Tignor and H.L. Miller. Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA.: Cambridge University Press.
- US Federal Aviation Administration, Code of Federal Regulations Sec. 91.121
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to: Sea level
- Sea Level Rise:Understanding the past - Improving projections for the future
- Permanent Service for Mean Sea Level
- Global sea level change: Determination and interpretation
- Environment Protection Agency Sea level rise reports
- Properties of isostasy and eustasy
- Measuring Sea Level from Space
- Rising Tide Video: Scripps Institution of Oceanography
- Sea Levels Online: National Ocean Service (CO-OPS)