Two new studies are predicting accelerated sea-level rises on the East and West coasts of the United States, primarily due to global warming. Major media outlets—and in some ways the studies themselves—have painted a distorted picture of past, current, and future sea levels. In fact, the studies actually conflict with each other, a crucial fact that has gone unreported in news reports that have mentioned both of the studies.
One study, henceforth referred to as the “East Coast study,” was published in the journal Nature Climate Change and shows a “recent acceleration” of sea-level rise on the East Coast from North Carolina to Massachusetts. According to the Associated Press, “By 2100, scientists and computer models estimate that sea levels globally could rise as much as 3.3 feet,” and this study predicts that the East Coast could see “8 to 11 inches more” than this, hence “putting one of the world’s most costly coasts in danger of flooding….”
The other study, herein dubbed the “West Coast study,” was published by the National Research Council and publicized with a Los Angeles Times headline that reads “California sea levels to rise 5-plus feet this century, study says.”
Sensation versus information
First, a lesson in journalistic sensationalism: The AP’s claim about “scientists and computer models” predicting global sea-level rises by 2100 of “as much as 3.3 feet” could just as well have been worded “as little as 7 inches.” This 3.3 feet figure is not from the study that is the subject of the AP article, and by citing the authority of scientists and computer models, the AP gives the distinct impression that this result is universal. The reality, however, is that a 2011 paper in the Journal of Coastal Research explains that such projections run as low as 7 inches. An honest way to report this would have been to provide a range of estimates (such as 7 inches to 3.3 feet), not a single cherry-picked example.
The Los Angeles Times headline about the West Coast study—“California sea levels to rise 5-plus feet this century”—is even more misleading because the language is unequivocal. In truth, the study predicts a sea-level rise of 16.5 to 66 inches over this period. In the body of the article, theLA Times reporter walks back the headline and applies the qualifier “as much as” to the 5-plus-feet figure, but he fails to provide even a hint that this is the upper bound of a prediction that extends to as low as one fourth of this.
Reuters took the hyperbole a leap further by claiming that the East Coast study shows “sea levels from Cape Hatteras to Cape Cod are rising at a faster pace than anywhere on Earth.” This assertion appears to be completely fabricated. The study compares global average sea-level accelerations to those on the coastlines of the continental U.S. and southernmost portion of Canada. It says nothing about any other specific locations, and an email to one of the study’s authors confirms that the study “does not make comparisons ‘to anywhere on earth’.”