I have just been reading this article on Gizmodo (known for its hard science I know), that talks about sea level rising by up to 3 feet(!).

In the article and video, created from information from NASA it seems, it states that over the last 23 years sea level has risen in some areas and fallen in others.

Now, whilst I am aware that the level of water will vary with tides, how can the general sea level fall in some areas whilst it rises in others?

Surely if I add 9999 million gallons of water to the oceans, then the water level of the whole world should raise by the same amount everywhere?

How can the sea level rise in some places and fall in others?

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    $\begingroup$ TL; DR: Post-glacial rebound. Long answer: Read kwinkunks' excellent answer. You really should accept it. $\endgroup$ Aug 28, 2015 at 22:03

1 Answer 1


There are lots of controls on sea level, not just the volume of water in the world ocean. These controls operate on different time and spatial scales, and interact in nonlinear ways. As a result, both global ('absolute') sea level and local ('relative') sea level can rise in some places and fall in others.

For example, absolute sea-level is currently rising, largely because polar ice is melting. But the rate of change is not the same everywhere, and indeed in some places sea-level is falling:

Rates of sea-level rise (NOAA)

How can this be? Post-glacial isostatic rebound! Much of northern Canada was covered in a thick ice sheet in the last ice-age. This sheet was heavy enough to depress the lithosphere (the earth's crust)! Since the uppermost mantle ('asthenosphere') is plastic, it flowed out of the say, so to speak. The ice melted thousands of years ago, but the highly viscous asthenosphere is still flowing back, pushing the crust up as it does so. As the crust goes up, relative sea-level falls.

What about global sea-level?

Aside: Some people think changes in global sea-level, sometimes called eustasy, are synchronous and evenly distributed (see early literature on sequence stratigraphy). But, as I hope this tiny introduction will illustrate, it's more complicated than that...

There are lots of other mechanisms that affect sea-level, not just isostacy. Here's a list of Local and Global effects I made for my thesis (Hall, M, 1997, Sequence stratigraphy and early diagensis: the Sobrarbe Formation, Ainsa Basin, Spain, Manchester); I've also blogged about it:

Things affecting sea-level

Some effects, like changes in the shape of the geoid and hydro-isostacy, affect the deep ocean too — changing the amount of water that, say, the Pacific can hold. Like all the others, these vary in time and space, and have complex relationships to the other effects in that table... so it's quite hard to model all this!

Footnote: There's lots more on Earth Science Stack exchange about sea-level.

  • $\begingroup$ I saw a few articles that said that the gravitation of the ice caps plays a key role: e360.yale.edu/feature/… and harvardmagazine.com/2010/05/gravity-of-glacial-melt $\endgroup$
    – userLTK
    Aug 31, 2015 at 6:14
  • $\begingroup$ when you say "largely because polar ice is melting", you mean Greenland, right? My understanding was that Arctic ice didn't affect sea levels and Antarctic ice has not yet melted in significant quantities. $\endgroup$
    – craq
    Jan 31, 2019 at 2:21
  • $\begingroup$ Sea level is largely unaffected by polar melting, thermal expansion of water is the driving force for rising sea levels. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Apr 19, 2019 at 15:37
  • $\begingroup$ So when people refer to "global" sea level, is it kinda like an average? $\endgroup$
    – user17688
    Oct 5, 2019 at 3:23
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    $\begingroup$ @FuzzySquid Yes, in the sense that a statement like, "Global sea-level is rising," means that is rising on average. There are places where it's rising faster than average, places where it's slower, and still others where it's static or falling. $\endgroup$
    – Matt Hall
    Oct 5, 2019 at 12:56

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