Harvard researchers detect the first definitive proof of elusive sea level fingerprints
Photo of a glacier. Credit: Kenichiro Tani

Sea levels change when ice sheets melt.

It is similar to a seesaw. The ocean levels fall when the glaciers melt. They rise thousands ofmiles away. The water dispersal is caused by the loss of a pull towards the ice sheet. Sea level fingerprints are the result of each melting glacier or ice sheet impacting sea level in unique ways. Modern sea level science has been built around elements of the concept that have been around for over a century. There is a hitch to the theory. Researchers haven't been able to detect a sea level fingerprints.

A group of scientists, including a Harvard graduate, believe they have discovered the first. There is a new study in Science. The work helps solidify confidence in models that predict sea level rise.

The idea of fingerprints has been used to build ocean level projections, urban and coastal planning. That is the reason fingerprints are so important. It's possible to estimate the geometry of the sea level changes. We would have to rethink all modern sea level research if fingerprints were incorrect.

Major fluctuations in ocean levels brought on by changing tides, currents and winds make it hard to detect sea level fingerprints. Researchers are trying to link millimeter level motions of the water to glaciers thousands of miles away.

The search for the Boson was similar to the search for the Higgs Boson.

Almost all physicists believed in the existence of the Higgs Boson, but when it was found, it was a significant accomplishment. The fingerprints had never been detected at a comparable level of confidence in sea level physics.

The new study uses newly released satellite data from a European marine monitoring agency that captures over 30 years of observations in the vicinity of the Greenland Ice Sheet and much of the ocean close to the middle of Greenland.

The satellite data caught the attention of two people. Normally, satellite records from this region had only extended up to the southern tip of Greenland, but in this new release the data reached ten degrees higher in latitude, allowing them to look for signs of the seesaw caused by the fingerprints.

To verify if this was a true sea level signal, Mitrovica turned to Coulson, who was a PhD student in her lab.

She was the best person to model what the fingerprints would look like, and she was able to determine if that prediction matched the satellite observations.

The datasets hit her inbox when she was visiting family in the U.K. She immediately saw the potential.

She quickly collected three decades worth of the best observations she could find on ice height change within the ice sheet. She compared the new satellite data with the previous data to create predictions of sea level change. It was a perfect fit. A one-to-one match showed that the sea level change revealed by the satellites is a sign of the melting ice sheet.

There was a sea level fingerprints, proof of their existence. This was an exciting time for everyone. There are few moments in science that give such clarity on earth processes.

A book end to all the theoretical and computational work we've built with a community of international colleagues is one of the highlights of my career.

The researchers were able to act quickly because they were able to develop the results in a short time. The process took a few months from when they saw the data to when they submitted it.

The majority of the work had already been completed. Almost all models predicting sea level rise have been based on the work of the Mitrovica team, who presented their work on sea level fingerprints about two decades ago.

This was a high reward science and no one expected it to be detected so quickly. The Star-Friedman Challenge helped us a lot.

Now that the first sea level fingerprints have been found, the question is where this all leads.

There will be more detections. It will soon be possible to project sea level changes into the next decade, century, and beyond.

More information: Sophie Coulson, A detection of the sea level fingerprint of Greenland Ice Sheet melt, Science (2022). DOI: 10.1126/science.abo0926. www.science.org/doi/10.1126/science.abo0926 Journal information: Science