Rising Sea Levels May be Slowed by a Sponge-like Earth

First Posted: Feb 12, 2016 08:25 AM EST

Scientists have found for the first time how climate-driven increases of liquid water storage on land have affected the rate of sea level rise. The new findings reveal how land may just be soaking up water to keep sea levels from rising as fast as previously expected.

Each year, a huge amount of water evaporates from the ocean and then falls over land as rain or snow. It then returns to the ocean through runoff and river flows. This, in particular, is known as the global hydrological cycle. Small changes in the cycle can lead to large, although temporary, changes in the rate of sea level rise. However, researchers haven't been sure how large this effect would be.

In this latest study, the researchers used the twin satellites from NASA's Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) to quantify sea level rise trends. More specifically, the researchers used the satellites to record changes in the Earth's gravitational pull that result from water moving across its surface.

"We always assumed that people's increased reliance on groundwater for irrigation and consumption was resulting in a net transfer of water from the land to the ocean," said J.T. Reager, one of the researchers, in a news release. "What we didn't realize until now is that over the past decade, changes in the global water cycle more than offset the losses that occurred from groundwater pumping, causing the land to act like a sponge."

The new findings reveal a bit more about changing water storage patterns on land and their impact on modulating current rates of sea level rise.

The findings are published in the journal Science.

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