Sea level

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For the effects of global warming on sea levels, see global warming

The sea level is the average height of the ocean (informally called the sea). The word 'average' must be used because the height of the sea changes with the tides. The height of mountains, countries, and so on, is almost always given as "above sea level".

Technical details

Sea level is generally used to refer to mean sea level (MSL). This is the an average level for the surface of one or more of Earth's oceans.

MSL is a type of standardised geodetic reference point. It is used, for example, as a chart datum in cartography and marine navigation. In aviation it is the standard sea level at which atmospheric pressure is measured. This is used to calibrate altitude, which influences aircraft flight levels. A common mean sea-level standard is the midpoint between a mean low and mean high tide at a particular place.[1]

Sea levels can be affected by many factors. They have varied greatly over geological time scales. The careful measurement of variations in MSL offers insights into ongoing climate change. The present slight rise in sea levels is offered as proof of ongoing global warming.[2]

Long-term changes in sea level

Two methods of drawing sea-level changes during the last 500 million years. The scale of change during the last glacial/interglacial transition is indicated with a black bar. Note that over most of geologic history, long-term average sea level has been higher than today. Note: graph starts on the right
Sea level change since the end of the last ice age. Changes shown in metres

In Earth's long history, the continents and sea floor have changed due to plate tectonics. This affects global sea level because it alters the depths of various ocean basins, and also changes the distribution of glaciers.

Over most of geologic time, the long-term mean sea level has been higher than today (see graph). Only at the Permian-Triassic boundary ~250 million years ago was the long-term mean sea level lower than today.

Long term changes in the mean sea level are the result of changes in the oceanic crust, with a downward trend expected to continue in the very long term.[3]

Rapid changes in sea level

Rapid changes may happen by huge lakes breaking through into seas. This has happened on a number of occasions. When the latest ice age was ending, melting caused huge lakes in central North America. This eventually broke through into the Atlantic. Melting ice in the North Sea are also broke through into the English Channel. The largest known example of marine flooding was when the Atlantic breached the Strait of Gibraltar about 5.2 million years ago. This restored Mediterranean sea levels, which had dried up.[4][5]

The present rise in sea level is taken from tide gauges. It is about 1.8 mm/yr.[6] Active research continues in this field.


  1. What is "Mean Sea Level"? (Proudman Oceanographic Laboratory).
  2. Solomon et al 1997. Technical Summary, Section 3.4 Consistency among observations in IPCC AR4 WG1 2007; Hegerl et al., Executive summary, Section 1.3: Consistency of changes in physical and biological systems with warming in IPCC AR4 SYR 2007.
  3. Müller, R. Dietmar 2008.. "Long-term sea-level fluctuations driven by ocean basin dynamics". Science 319 (5868): 1357–1362. doi:10.1126/science.1151540 . PMID 18323446 .
  4. Gautier F. et al 1994. Age and duration of the Messinian salinity crisis. C.R. Acad. Sci., Paris (IIA) 318, 1103–1109.
  5. Krijgsman W. et al 1996.. "A new chronology for the middle to late Miocene continental record in Spain". Earth and Planetary Science Letters 142 (3–4): 367–380. doi:10.1016/0012-821X(96)00109-4 . Retrieved 2008-03-01.
  6. GRID-Arendal. "Climate change 2001: the scientific basis". Retrieved 2005-12-19.

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