How much do sea levels rise due to thermal expansion?

I was reading an article by the Smithsonian Institute about the rising sea levels. In it, they mention how warmer water expands more, thus it helps to raise the average sea level. This makes perfect sense to me as I've always known that heat generally causes a substance to expand. But, I am very skeptical as to how much of a difference this makes, which is my question: how much expansion is caused by the rise in average global temperatures.

Now, I don't think the rise in average surface temperatures results in an equal raise in ocean temperatures, because most of the ocean, below 1,000 meters or so, hovers close to freezing year round. So, I dont think the whole of the ocean temperature rises in lock-step with the heating of the Earth's surface.

Specifically, I would like someone to calculate how much sea level rises due to a 1 or 2 degree warmer average temperature overall. As a secondary question, I would like to know how much surface temperatures affect ocean temperatures.

• As I understand it, the overwhelming majority of sea rise is due to the melting glaciers, not to thermal expansion. Oct 6, 2019 at 19:10
• @JohnDvorak Currently, slightly more than half is still due to thermal expansion, but most av the acceleration is due to the ice sheets, according to pnas.org/content/115/9/2022
– user137289
Oct 6, 2019 at 20:12
• This question might be easier to think about if you do it in terms of the total energy absorbed by the oceans (where you get to use fun units like "kilotons of TNT equivalent per second", in which it's somewhere around 25), rather than temperature changes Oct 7, 2019 at 18:23
• Makes me wonder if there might be any effect of the temperature of the land increasing,...
– tom
Oct 7, 2019 at 21:59

This is known as the steric component of sea level rise, and it is significant.

As a very rough indication of the size of the effect, if the top 1000 meters of the ocean warmed from 10 to 11 degrees C, sea level would rise by 18 cm. Calculations like this can be made using the equation of state of seawater, which is an empirical thing with lots of terms that gives you the density as a function of temperature, salinity, and pressure. You can read all about it in this article.

• Could you show your calculations? Numbers are not what makes physics physics... Oct 7, 2019 at 10:45
• @TomášZato It is based on the equation of state of sea water, which is pretty long to write out for this question. I don’t calculate by hand. Oct 7, 2019 at 10:49
• Surely there's an article about it or something, that would make the question more complete without compromisint its brevity. Oct 7, 2019 at 10:50
• @TomášZato yes. I’ll add a link. Oct 7, 2019 at 10:52
• It might also be nice to expand the first sentence with info of this type: "...is significant but estimated to be somewhat less than the eustatic component of sea level rise which currently comes largely from ice sheet melting". Likewise, your mention of 18 cm does not mention whether that's only the steric component; if you just said "instantaneously" in that sentence, that would make it obvious that it's not a realistic climatic model and that there's no time for anything melting anywhere. Oct 7, 2019 at 11:55

We can get the volumetric expansion coefficient $$(\frac{0.000214}{C})$$ from the link below. I'm going to run through this example for a $$1\times1\times 3500 \space \mathrm{m}$$ rectangular volume. Like the previous answer, I'll assume a one degree C change in temperature. 3500 m is the average depth of the ocean according to 2 seconds of google.

$$V_1 = 3500 \space \mathrm{m}^3$$

$$\Delta V_2 = V_1\times c_w \times \Delta C$$

$$\Delta V_2 = 3500 \times 0.000214 \times 1 = 0.749\space\mathrm{m}^3$$

So, for a one degree change in temperature, and the average ocean, there is a $$0.749\space\mathrm{m}^3$$ increase in volume. Our initial 1x1 area makes the sea level rise calculation very easy:

$$\frac{0.794\space\mathrm{m}^3} {(1\times1)\space\mathrm{m}^2} = 0.794\space\mathrm{m}$$ increase in sea level.

The area ends up cancelling out on both sides, so the answer should be the same for 100x100 or 1000x1000 meter area. The biggest assumption here is that the 'sides' of the ocean are completely vertical. I don't have nearly enough numbers to do the full calculation with shorelines, but this is where the numbers come from.

Coefficient of expansion reference: https://www.engineeringtoolbox.com/cubical-expansion-coefficients-d_1262.html

• This is oversimplified. The coefficient of expansion depends on temperature, pressure, and salinity, and much of the ocean is at temperatures and pressures where this makes a major difference (for example, warming the Arctic ocean surface from 0˚C to 1˚C will cause the sea level to fall). See the charts at engineeringtoolbox.com/water-density-specific-weight-d_595.html
– Mark
Oct 7, 2019 at 23:45

The answer is complicated and not a single number. The amount of thermal expansion for a given volume of ocean depends on depth (pressure), salinity, and temperature. That is, a 1C change from 10C to 11C will produce a different amount of expansion than 21C to 22C. What this means is that if you take a fixed quantity of energy (like, say, a gigajoule) and inject it as heat into different parts of the ocean, you will observe different amounts of thermal expansion. Thus, even an "average" warming of 1C across the entire ocean can manifest as a surprisingly wide range of thermal expansions, depending on the particular temperature deltas within each part of the ocean. That is, the final expansion will depend on the distribution of the thermal change.

The best we can do is build models which attempt to make reasonable inferences of the heat distribution and compare them to actual measurements taken by buoys, satellites, and other instruments. This is how the IPCC estimates the thermosteric component of mean sea level rise: https://www.nap.edu/read/13389/chapter/5. Some studies suggest that atmospheric-driven thermosteric expansion can be inferred down to 600m, while others suggest it penetrates further.

The EPA says that the average sea surface temperature (SST is a significant area of study all by itself) has increased on average about 0.07C/decade for the last century: https://www.epa.gov/climate-indicators/climate-change-indicators-sea-surface-temperature. Now, that probably doesn't sound like much change. Barely over half a degree for a whole century! But you need to consider that water has significantly higher density and specific heat than air, so the amount of energy it takes to warm a kg of air is much less than needed to warm a kg of ocean, let alone a m^3.

IPCC estimates conclude that the ocean has absorbed about 93% of the excess energy trapped during the last century or so: https://portals.iucn.org/library/sites/library/files/documents/2016-046_0.pdf. What this means is that 1C of atmospheric warming only corresponds to a small fraction of a degree of oceanic warming (hence, the 0.07C/decade).

Even so, thermal expansion is believed to account for at least half of all sea level rise in the last century or so. But to answer your question most directly, NASA documents that from 1970 or so, the ocean has risen about 5 mm/decade, with a corresponding ocean temperature increase of 0.015C/decade (note the different rates cited are due to vastly different timescales). This implies an observed ratio of about 333 mm/1C average ocean temperature increase in the top 700m of ocean. This is about 2x the rate given by @Ben51, and less than half given by @Anthony Herrera.

I liked Lawnmower Man's answer. I would add that there's a possibility that the results are from observational data, and could include measurement bias, overstating the expansion.

I haven't noticed sea levels rising by 33cm all around the world, since 1970. Unless the land is also rising. I take my observations from shoreline reference points, in places like Fiji, New Zealand, South Eastern and North Western Europe, the US West Coast. South East Asia... All places where I have had family/beach side homes or businesses for 60-70 years, and that I visit multiple times per year.

Given there's no such anecdotal observational evidence for any sea level rises, in any of the areas I've been or go frequently, I wonder if there's another explanation?

Possibly, the land is rising, through earthquakes, or tectonic blistering in all places I go - it's possible. Except California is sinking, I believe we are told. The rest probably are rising, even the Pacific Islands I refer to (although many are sinking, as the Netherlands does).

Also possibly, there are a lot more measuring beacons all over the oceans, more easily capturing storm surges, coinciding with high tides... Which before, were unlikely to be numerically recorded, or if so, insufficiently to Sway mean sea level datum. Again from anecdotal evidence, I recall high tides, kind tides, etc, peaking in around 2012... Certainly in South East Asia.

For what that's worth.