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Nothing To Sea Here Folks

02 Oct 2023 | Fact Checks, Sea Level Check

Nothing To Sea Here Folks transcript


One of the scariest talking points about global warming is sea level rise. Climate alarmists are warning that coastal areas, seaside landmarks and even major cities could be destroyed over the next century due to melting ice caps and surging oceans. Tourists are being told to see Venice before climate change sends it permanently underwater. Residents of small pacific islands have been told their homes could be gone within decades. “Sea level rise will flood huge swaths of the country and submerge billions of dollars’ worth of land, according to a new report” bellows NBC about the United States, while The Economist has “America drowning”, ABC warns “US coastlines to experience 'profound' sea level rise by 2050/ Coastal communities will be in even more danger of devastating flooding events” and the Guardian says “Sea level rise in England will force 200,000 to abandon homes”.

John Robson:

Despite all this noise, we can’t help but notice that the wealthiest people in the world were, and are, flocking to oceanfront locations in places like California and Florida. Even ultrawealthy climate activists like Bill Gates and Barack Obama were buying oceanfront mansions, while warning everyone else to fear rising oceans, though banks happily grant long-term mortgages on properties like, say, President Joe Biden’s Rehoboth Beach home in a town with a maximum elevation of, um, seven feet.

And there’s something fishy, so to speak, about government officials in Tuvalu and the Maldives doing media stunts in the water as a way of claiming their islands are about to be inundated by the rising Pacific or Indian oceans when actual measurements say otherwise.

So what’s fact, and what’s fiction, on the topic of global sea level rise?

I’m John Robson and, to see what are the dry, solid facts and who’s all wet on this issue, I invite you to stick around for a Climate Discussion Nexus look at “The Great Sea Level Scare”.


To begin with, one thing the alarmists have right is that the seas are rising on average. It’s a complex phenomenon and hard to measure because the land itself is changing, and moving. During the last glaciation vast ice sheets covered much of the North Hemispheric land mass and pushed it down into the Earth’s crust. And when the Earth mercifully warmed at the start of the current Holocene “interglacial” and the ice melted, the land began a process called “isostatic rebound” in which northern areas are rising to the point that in places like Stockholm the seas appears to be falling while down south the land is being levered down in places including Chicago where nobody is talking about sea level rise, and also Venice where they definitely are.

John Robson:

It's also important that in some places the land is subsiding for other reasons, from erosion to humans undermining it by piling on buildings while sucking out groundwater. And elsewhere it’s accumulating, including many tropical coral islands. So the whole question of sea level rise is not remotely like those images and metaphors that are often peddled online where it’s like a tap running into a sink or a bucket and inevitably overflowing if we’re too stupid to shut it off in time.


Actually Venice is a special case. It was originally built on log pilings in a saltwater marsh, so its magnificent buildings have always been vulnerable to the ever-present tides and flooding coming in off the Adriatic Sea and liable to sink into the swamp. And it gets even more complicated.

While the average sea level near Venice has risen over the past few centuries, studies of proxy measures, like algae markings on buildings and the location of staircases on very old buildings, indicate that sea levels were 12 to 21 centimetres higher in the 1300s than they are today. They later fell as the Medieval Warm Period gave way to the Little Ice Age from around 1400 until the 19th century, then began rising again.

Today the water near Venice appears to be rising at about 2.5 millimeters per year, which isn’t very fast anyway. But since the land is sinking by 1.5 millimeters per year, the absolute sea level is only rising by about 1 millimeter per year.

John Robson:

Wherever we look at sea level data we need to pay attention to both aspects. Are the seas going up, or is the land going down, or both? It’s all too easy to point to places like Venice and say “Aha! Climate change!” when in reality, the upward trend in the sea level there is only a minor contributor to the increasing flooding problem, compared to the slowly sinking land level.

Of course, what people in coastal areas experience is the combined effect. In our Sea Level Check series, we’ve used the raw data showing the combined effect, taken directly from a US government website. And a few people have raised this question of changes in the land, and here we want to say “Exactly.” The combined effect varies from place to place, and it’s important to show that the simplistic alarmist narrative about rapid uniform global sea level rise isn’t right. We need to explore the real complexities.


Including the astonishing ones concerning those coral atolls in the South Pacific. While nearby sea levels are going up by about 2 millimeters per year, the islands are not being submerged. Instead, the land is growing as quickly as the sea level rises. As the sea surface rises, the coral also grows, which gets turned into sediment by the waves and accumulates on the existing land surface, in some cases even causing the total land surface to expand.

John Robson:

This claim might sound farfetched. But despite the media stunts put on by governments of those islands and others, the data is clear. And the scientific literature over the past 15 years has been filled with studies explaining the process, and showing not only that these islands aren’t sinking, but most of them are actually growing.

If you think that finding is amazing, check this one out. Not only are most of those small Pacific islands increasing in size as the seas rise, so are global land areas. According to a 2021 article in the ISPRS Journal of Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing (in case you happened to miss that particular edition), based on long term satellite data the global shoreline areas are growing, not shrinking overall.

How can this be? Well, as we said, shorelines are complicated dynamic things.


There are sandy beaches, tidal flats, river deltas, cliffs and lots of other coastal landforms, and while waves and tides are washing some of them away, they’re adding sand to others. And overall, more are growing then shrinking, so the globally-averaged shoreline distance is increasing by about .26 metres per year. Which isn’t much, and one does wonder how to measure such small quantities on something as large as the Earth. But the same point applies to claims of 2.6 millimeters of sea level rise.

John Robson:

While we’re at it we should also say something about oceans that seems obvious but needs to be mentioned, namely that they have tides. And I bring this up because there are a couple of famous photos including one at a 2021 G7 retreat in Carbis Bay, another at Fort Denison, Australia, (formerly and more colourfully “Pinchgut Island”), another at the Statue of Liberty and another at Britain’s Scapa Flow naval base purporting to show no change in levels over an entire century. (And there’s also the semi-famous Plymouth Rock marker that actually has been moved around a fair bit.) But of course if the tides aren’t at exactly the same phase in each photo, then they prove nothing.

The sea could have risen several feet or even more. One handy site “The Top 5 Highest Tides on Earth” indicates that the record-holder which is Burntcoat Head in the Bay of Fundy in Nova Scotia, has a “Mean Tidal Range” of 11.7 metres (that’s 38.4 feet) but even Rio Gallegos (Reduccion Beacon) in Argentina, which is in fifth place, has 8.8 metres or 29 feet.

However this image, courtesy of Greenpeace co-founder Patrick Moore, is a bit harder to explain away. Clearly the sea has been lapping away at these formations in pretty much exactly the same place for millennia, and it doesn’t matter whether you take this photo at high or low tide. And for that matter, the tide-adjusted records at Fort Denison do show… lower sea levels in 2019 than 1914, which is also awkward.

All these details may be brushed aside as “denialism” given that overall sea levels do seem to be rising, if not at a frightening pace. And indeed a study out of New Zealand used sinking land as one more proof of how bad climate change will be. So, now let’s turn to the question of whether sea level rise itself, or the current rate of sea level rise, is new or even unprecedented.


To answer that we can turn to a chart that is readily available online, including on Wikipedia, which shows sea level rise in broad strokes over the last 24,000 years.

As you see, it begins to rise around 20 thousand years ago as the great ice sheets, once a kilometre thick as far south as Chicago, began to melt, and rose at a genuinely accelerating pace for much of the next 14,000 years. You can also see that the rate is uneven, sometimes shooting up as around the time of the dramatic temperature surges before and after the Younger Dryas and then slowing down under the uneven and sometimes cyclical pattern of natural warming and cooling that has always been with us and still is.

Note however that there is a semi-linear trend here. After rising about 120 metres by the time of the Holocene Climatic Optimum some 6,500 years ago, the seas calmed down. Since then they’ve risen by only a few metres, and at a pretty steady pace over the past several thousand years.

John Robson:

Which brings us to a very fundamental problem with alarmist “science”. What we have here is something that has been going on for nearly 7 millennia, namely gentle sea level rise, which alarmists say was natural for the first 6,430 years, and then suddenly somehow became man-made around 1950. Same effect, new cause. That’s not how science works. But it really is what they say.

We were recently “Fact checked” by USA Today for our Sea Level Check video on Oslo, where the water is actually falling relative to the land, and you can imagine what they said. MISINFORMATION. But here’s a key point. They got one “Martin Stendel, a climate scientist at Danish Meteorological Institute” to tell them that:


“If the glacial isostatic adjustment is taken into account, sea levels are rising everywhere in Norway, including Oslo. This is due to man-made climate change.”

John Robson:

Got it? Not “partly due”. Due. Necessarily implying that, if it weren’t for “man-made climate change”, the seas would not be rising, even though they have been rising for 20,000 years, and at roughly today’s pace for over 6,000. Which is rather obviously rubbish.

Just as it was rubbish when Barack Obama, upon clinching the Democratic Party presidential nomination in 2008, said it was “the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal”. In fact, the rise of the oceans began to slow about 7,000 years ago and Barack Obama had nothing to do with it. And it didn’t slow further when he did what King Canute, despite popular mythology, did not do, and stretched out his hands to command the waves.

BTW the Daily Caller went after Obama in 2015 not for his very un-Canutian arrogance but for failing to command the tides compellingly. It said, “Environmentalists have been sounding the alarm over a recent Harvard University study that found that sea levels have actually been rising faster than scientists initially thought.”

Settled science is like that on climate. But even though the experts concede that sea levels have been steadily rising for thousands of years, isn’t the issue that they are now rising faster? Not really.


In Chapter 8 of his book Unsettled, scientist and former Obama Administration official Steven Koonin notes that over the past 120 years global average sea levels rose by about 2 millimeters per year, and over the past 20 years that rate has increased to about 3 millimeters per year. But he also notes that there were other 20-year intervals in the past when sea levels rose at 3 millimeters per year then subsequently slowed down to below 2 millimeters. So it’s too soon to say if global sea levels have actually accelerated or are just showing their longstanding variability.

John Robson:

Also, the latest acceleration more or less coincides with a new satellite whose measurements are spliced onto those of tidal gauges and everybody knows, or used to, that when you combine data sets and there’s a discontinuity you should be very suspicious that it’s a measurement artifact. Where, for instance, is this acceleration in this chart?


Another major problem with detecting acceleration as a trend, especially on such a short time scale, is that sea level rise has been so uneven over time. In his book The Little Ice Age, author Brian Fagan asserts that:

“10,000 years ago, the southern North Sea was a marshy plain where elk and deer wandered and Stone Age foragers hunted and fished. England was part of the continent until as recently as 6000 B.C., when rising sea levels caused by post-Ice Age warming filled the North Sea. By 3000 B.C., the ocean was at near-modern levels. Sea levels fluctuated continually through late prehistoric and Roman times but rose significantly after A.D. 1000. Over the next few centuries, the North Sea rose as much as forty to fifty centimetres above today’s height in the low countries, then slowly retreated again as temperatures fell gradually in the north.”

John Robson:

Meanwhile, a paper in the Journal of Marine Biology and Aquascape found that sea levels in the supposedly doomed Maldives, and elsewhere in the Indian Ocean, were actually higher in the 17th century than today, lower in the 18th, rose sharply in the early 19th and then stabilized from 1950 on.


There’s also the work by computer scientist Willis Eschenbach, showing that sea level rise at Liverpool, England did indeed begin accelerating in modern times… except it was in the mid-19th century. It happened again prior to 1900 and again around 1980. But since 2000 it has plunged. Which is yet another example of a process that alarmists claim is linear and unprecedented, but is actually cyclical and old news.

John Robson:

By contrast, Eschenbach demonstrates, San Francisco, which has one of the best and longest-running actual data sets, shows the same rate of increase from 1854 through 2021.


“In common with about 80% of the long-term sea-level records,” he notes, “there’s no sign of any acceleration in the rate of sea-level rise in San Francisco, either overall or during the last half-century.”

John Robson:

So it’s pretty clear that sea level rise accelerates and decelerates on a long, irregular natural rhythm. It wasn’t doing just one thing for 1,000 years, 2,000, 5,000, or 12,000 until we messed it up, any more than the climate was, as Al Gore famously said in An Inconvenient Truth, essentially stable throughout the Holocene until the coming of the motor car.


As the late geophysicist Nils-Axel Mörner put it:

“It is a serious mistake to claim that global sea level is in a phase of rapid rise. Statements that sea level may raise by 1 metre or more by 2100 represent fake news that do not concur with true facts and it violates physical frames of realism.”

John Robson:

Finally, let’s talk catastrophe. We sometimes get comments on our videos and blog saying melting ice doesn’t matter because it just displaces the water it’s already floating in. And that is essentially true of sea ice. But it’s not relevant because the crucial concern is the melting of land-based ice, meaning in the Northern Hemisphere primarily the Arctic Greenland ice sheet, and in the Southern Hemisphere the much larger Antarctic one.

So here I want to concede, in the interest of being fair-minded, that yes if all the land-based ice in the world were to melt, our civilization would be in huge trouble.


Greenland alone is thought to contain nearly 3 million cubic kilometres of ice (2,850,000), enough to raise sea levels 7.2 metres, and Antarctica 26.5 million cubic kilometres, enough to raise sea levels 58 metres. (If you did the math that fast and wonder why it wouldn’t raise it 67 metres, that is, why 9.2 times as much ice only threatens an 8-fold rise, it’s because a significant amount of the West Antarctic ice sheet is already under water and, as noted, such ice is already displacing almost exactly as much water as it contains.)

John Robson:

Still, if Greenland and Antarctica melted, disaster. So the question becomes, is either of them about to melt and, if it looks like it is, what can we do to stop it? Because if climate catastrophe looms, whether we’re causing it and whether we can prevent it are actually entirely separate questions. And here the answer to both is “no”.

Even Wikipedia says Greenland is not about to melt, but adds that nevertheless it probably is:


“The Greenland ice sheet is adversely affected by climate change…. While only a small fraction of the ice sheet is expected to melt during the 21st century, it is believed that most or even all of the ice sheet is committed to melting under the present or likely near-future climate unless the recent warming is reversed, making it an example of a climate tipping point.”

It also says of Antarctica:

“Satellite measurements by NASA indicate a still increasing sheet thickness above the continent, outweighing the losses at the edge. The reasons for this are not fully understood…”

John Robson:

But don’t let ice accumulating in Antarctica make you think Antarctic ice is not disappearing. Scare stories about it are a dime a dozen… and worth every penny. If you do a word search on the CDN website on the Thwaites glacier, also known as the “Doomsday” glacier, you’ll find links to lots of these stories which you can use to entertain your kids while you huddle on the roof waiting for the flood to wash you away.


Our own perspective is based on looking at the long history of our planet. We know it was a lot warmer 6,500 years ago than it is today, yet the melting slowed back then rather than accelerating. We also know it was a lot warmer in the previous, Eemian interglacial than today, but the Greenland sheet only lost perhaps 10% of its depth. As for the Antarctic sheet, which is something like 50 million years old, most of it held its own even in the much warmer Pliocene that ended nearly 3 million years ago, let alone during the entire more recent Pleistocene with its warming and cooling cycles.

John Robson:

So what we’re now looking at is the same old same old. Sea levels continue to rise, on average, at a very modest pace, a couple of millimetres a year or so, as they’ve been doing since before the invention of writing or metallurgy. So a century from now they may be on average a foot higher. And since some alarmists say yeah, sure, it’s fine now but our computer says it’ll get faster, let us add that even if the rate doubles for whatever reason, natural, man-made or microchip hallucinated, it still only makes it two feet.

Oh, by the way, Wikipedia says of Rehoboth Beach where President Biden’s cottage sits that: “Many centuries ago, sea levels were lower, and the Atlantic Coast lay about 30 miles (50 km) farther east than it does today…. By the time the first Europeans arrived in the area in the 17th century, the coastline was at its present location…” So that would be natural sea level rise, and none worth mentioning lately.

Here’s the bottom line. If we and our descendants are such fools that with all the resources of advanced cyber-industrial civilization at our disposal, we can’t deal with, at worst, half a metre of sea level rise better than, say, the Dutch did with their dykes and land reclamation with hand tools in the Middle Ages, we deserve to be washed away. As we also do, incidentally, if we panic and destroy our economies in the mistaken belief that something that’s been going on naturally for millennia suddenly became our fault and, if we take a wind-powered solar bus, we can do what Canute knew he could not.

For the Climate Discussion Nexus, I’m John Robson, and that’s the low-down on sea level rise.

10 comments on “Nothing To Sea Here Folks”

  1. One of the canards the climate hysterics promote is that as the seas "heat up" the thermal expansion of sea water will inundate coastal landscapes. Even NOAA propagandists have "educated" our children with this nonsense. If the oceans were actually warming, an unproven proposition, thermal expansion of water is expressed as a small fraction of COLUMN HEIGHT. This is basic physics and a column height of 2 mile deep water subject to any thermal expansion might conceivably expand by several feet, however at any shoreline where it counts this small fraction of thermal expansion can yield no measurable sea rise even if measured in microns. No lateral movement of sea water is possible due to thermally induced column height change can occur unless someone were to discover that such a column of water somehow gains mass by thermal expansion, an extremely dubious theory contradicted by any and all observation of basic physical principles. Does NOAA hire any scientifically literate people to push its propaganda?

  2. This sounds plausible, but pretty technical. I'd like to see what you're saying explained with graphics and appropriate charts.

  3. That's not the way the thermal contribution to sea level rise works. One way of looking at the conundrum is to imagine a reference surface, say 5 mm or some other very small number below the current surface . Heat up the volume below this surface and derive the linear expansion from that expanded volume but averaged across the entire surface area of water. Then add back that tiny film at the top. You would not get a "dome effect" with elevated water in the middle of the ocean looming over less elevated water at the shoreline.

    Interestingly though, historically, it was believed, based on perception from the shore, that water level increased away from the land and it was only the beneficent power of god that kept the ocean from inundating the continents. This was to explain the biblical Noah story and also to explain springs on mountains. Many Americans of course still do believe the God-bit of the former. As far as the latter, it was believed right up until the late 17th century that there was a pipe connection from the ocean to caverns below the mountains and the head for water flow was provided by the great height of the ocean. Even Halley believed a version of this though with the addition of heat and condensation. The compatibility of volume of rain and river flow was not made until the 17th century by French geographers with "Fermi" estimates of the flow of the River Seine.

  4. And yet in the UK housing development continues along areas which we are told that are going to be underwater in the near future and the banks still offer mortgages and loans to buy seafront property which we are told is at risk of flooding. And some areas where I live can't get home insurance because of flooding. I live in the south west of England

  5. Of all the Warming Alarmist claims, sea level rise is perhaps the most reasonable concern. Most of the other "alarms" are entirely backwards. Global Warming will result in fewer violent storms, not more; smaller deserts, not larger; fewer droughts, not more; and higher ocean pH, not lower.

    Swedish geophysicist, Nils-Axel Mörner (1938-2020), once investigated the Maldives, finding a century tree which had been at the edge of the sea for as long as any of the natives could remember. Ancient high water marks were more than a meter above current high water marks. When Mörner returned months later, he found the century tree uprooted. "Caused by the sea?" he asked. "No," replied the natives. Caused by pesky, Australian climate activists who destroyed the tree to keep it from being evidence AGAINST their position.

    But the alarm about sea level rise is ameliorated by the fact that greater warmth will tend to slow down sea level rise for the first few centuries because more evaporation from the oceans will result in more snow on Greenland! Naturally, there will come a time when precipitation on Greenland will be a mix of rain and snow, and that could spell accelerated melting and sea level rise. When will that happen? A century? A millennia? We don't know! But it's likely not to happen any time soon, since the cooling trend of the last 3,000 years suggests that we are at the end of the Holocene interglacial.

    According to the work of W.S. Broecker (1997), the average interglacial is about 11,000 years long, and the Holocene is either 11,600 or 17,000 years old, depending on whether or not you include the massive warm-up before the 1,300-year Younger Dryas "Big Freeze." The cooling of the last 3,000 years looks a lot like the end of the Eemian interglacial some 110,000 years ago

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