Sea Level: How Do We Measure Global Ocean Levels And Do Rising Oceans Change That Benchmark?

Every summer you go down the shore, but lately you’ve begun to notice that the beach seems narrower each time you visit. Is that the sea level rising, or is the sand just being swept away? Speaking of sea levels, you keep hearing that they rise higher every year — but how exactly is that measured? After all, you can’t exactly use a ruler. As it turns out, there are a number of clever systems in place that can accurately measure the global sea level down to less than an inch and a half.

Not only are waves always rippling across the ocean’s surface, but tides periodically roll in and out, making any single instantaneous measurement of sea level hopelessly inaccurate. Even if you plan to take hundreds or thousands of measurements over the course of weeks or months, taking the individual measurements is still difficult. Pick a nice, stable rock in the surf, mark a line on it, and return every hour for two weeks to hold a tape measure up to it. At best you’ll get within six inches on each reading, no matter what you’ll get wet, and at worst the rock will move and you’ll get a damp notebook full of useless numbers. So let’s take a look at how the pros do it.

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