DeConto to Study Uncertainty in Sea-Level Rise Predictions, Coastal Flooding Risk

Robert DeConto
Robert DeConto

Robert DeConto, geosciences, one of  the world’s leading experts on modeling polar ice sheets, sea-level rise and ocean response to climate change, has received a four-year, $1.7 million grant from the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Prediction of and Resilience Against Extreme Events (PREEVENTS) program.

The goal is to better characterize the uncertainty in sea-level rise predictions and coastal flooding risk that stems from complex ice-sheet physics and interactions among the ice sheets, ocean, atmosphere and underlying solid land. DeConto is the lead principal investigator of the collaborative project, which includes researchers at Penn State, Rutgers and the climate science communication organization Climate Central. UMass Amherst will receive $602,539.

As DeConto explains, new observations and numerical modeling of the polar ice sheets on Greenland and Antarctica suggests that current projections of future sea-level rise could be significantly underestimated, and global mean sea level may rise about twice as much–more than 6 feet by 2100–as the 2013 estimate made by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

He adds that “sea-level rise of this magnitude would soon transform the potential for extreme flood risk in many coastal cities and communities, with the potential for devastating economic consequences and severe impacts on strategic infrastructure. While progress has recently been made in modeling the future response of the polar ice sheets to a warming atmosphere and ocean, substantial uncertainty remains and more work is needed to verify the potential for such extreme rates of sea-level rise.”

He and colleagues plan to use state-of-the-art glaciological theory, modeling and observations of past and present ice sheet behavior to better characterize this uncertainty for national and local policy makers and stakeholders. They will produce new projections of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets’ response to a range of plausible future greenhouse gas emissions scenarios.

They will also use advanced statistical techniques to combine new ice-sheet projections with other factors contributing to global and local sea-level change to produce an assessment of possible coastal flooding in specific locations, the probability in any given year of specific flood heights being exceeded, an assessment of how those frequency probabilities and storm-surge heights might evolve in the future, and quantified measures of the uncertainty in the projections.

In collaboration with Climate Central, DeConto’s team also plans to develop easily interpretable, accessible web-based tools to provide “the best possible toolkit for informed decision-making in terms of coastal resilience and preparedness.”