Mean sea level (MSL) is a measure of the average height of the ocean's surface (such as the halfway point between the mean high tide and the mean low tide); used as a standard in reckoning land elevation. MSL also plays an extremely important role in aviation, where standard sea level pressure is used as the measurement datum of altitude at flight levels.
To an operator of a tide gauge, MSL means the "still water level"—the level of the sea with motions such as wind waves averaged out—averaged over a period of time such that changes in sea level, e.g., due to the tides, also get averaged out. One measures the values of MSL in respect to the land. Hence a change in MSL can result from a real change in sea level, or from a change in the height of the land on which the tide gauge operates.
In the UK, the Ordnance Datum (the 0 metres height on UK maps) is the mean sea level measured at Newlyn in Cornwall between 1915 and 1921. Prior to 1921 the datum was MSL at the Victoria Dock, Liverpool.
In France, the Marégraphe in Marseilles measures continuously the sea level since 1883 and offers the longest collapsed data about the sea level. It is used for a part of continental Europe and main part of Africa as official sea level.
Satellite altimeters have been making precise measurements of sea level since the launch of TOPEX/Poseidon in 1992. A joint mission of NASA and CNES, TOPEX/Poseidon was followed by Jason-1 in 2001 and the Ocean Surface Topography Mission on the Jason-2 satellite in 2008.
Difficulties in utilization
To extend this definition far from the sea means comparing the local height of the mean sea surface with a "level" reference surface, or datum, called the geoid. In a state of rest or absence of external forces, the mean sea level would coincide with this geoid surface, being an equipotential surface of the Earth's gravitational field. In reality, due to currents, air pressure variations, temperature and salinity variations, etc., this does not occur, not even as a long term average. The location-dependent, but persistent in time, separation between mean sea level and the geoid is referred to as (stationary) ocean surface topography. It varies globally in a range of ± 2 m.
Traditionally, one had to process sea-level measurements to take into account the effect of the 228-month Metonic cycle and the 223-month eclipse cycle on the tides. Mean sea level is not constant over the surface of the Earth. For instance, mean sea level at the Pacific end of the Panama Canal stands 20 cm (7.9 in) higher than at the Atlantic end.
Sea level and dry land
Several terms are used to describe the changing relationships between sea level and dry land. When the term "relative" is used, it means change relative to a fixed point in the sediment pile. The term "eustatic" refers to global changes in sea level relative to a fixed point, such as the centre of the earth, for example as a result of melting ice-caps. The term "steric" refers to global changes in sea level due tothermal expansion and salinity variations. The term "isostatic" refers to changes in the level of the land relative to a fixed point in the earth, possibly due to thermal buoyancy or tectonic effects; it implies no change in the volume of water in the oceans. The melting of glaciers at the end of ice ages is one example of eustatic sea level rise. The subsidence of land due to the withdrawal of groundwater is an isostatic cause of relative sea level rise. Paleoclimatologists can track sea level by examining the rocks deposited along coasts that are very tectonically stable, like the east coast of North America. Areas like volcanic islands are experiencing relative sea level rise as a result of isostatic cooling of the rock which causes the land to sink.
On other planets that lack a liquid ocean, planetologists can calculate a "mean altitude" by averaging the heights of all points on the surface. This altitude, sometimes referred to as a "sea level", serves equivalently as a reference for the height of planetary features.
Sea level change
Local and eustatic sea level
Local mean sea level (LMSL) is defined as the height of the sea with respect to a land benchmark, averaged over a period of time (such as a month or a year) long enough that fluctuations caused by waves and tides are smoothed out. One must adjust perceived changes in LMSL to account for vertical movements of the land, which can be of the same order (mm/yr) as sea level changes. Some land movements occur because of isostatic adjustment of the mantle to the melting of ice sheets at the end of the last ice age. The weight of the ice sheet depresses the underlying land, and when the ice melts away the land slowly rebounds. Changes in ground-based ice volume also affect local and regional sea levels by the readjustment of the geoid and true polar wander. Atmospheric pressure, ocean currents and local ocean temperature changes can affect LMSL as well.
Eustatic change (as opposed to local change) results in an alteration to the global sea levels due to changes in either the volume of water in the world oceans or net changes in the volume of the ocean basins.
Short term and periodic changes
There are many factors which can produce short-term (a few minutes to 14 months) changes in sea level.
|Periodic sea level changes|
|Diurnal and semidiurnal astronomical tides||12–24 h P||0.2–10+ m|
|Rotational variations (Chandler wobble)||14 month P|
|Meteorological and oceanographic fluctuations|
|Atmospheric pressure||Hours to months||–0.7 to 1.3 m|
|Winds (storm surges)||1–5 days||Up to 5 m|
|Evaporation and precipitation (may also follow long-term pattern)||Days to weeks|
|Ocean surface topography (changes in water density and currents)||Days to weeks||Up to 1 m|
|El Niño/southern oscillation||6 mo every 5–10 yr||Up to 0.6 m|
|Seasonal water balance among oceans (Atlantic, Pacific, Indian)|
|Seasonal variations in slope of water surface|
|River runoff/floods||2 months||1 m|
|Seasonal water density changes (temperature and salinity)||6 months||0.2 m|
|Seiches (standing waves)||Minutes to hours||Up to 2 m|
|Tsunamis (generate catastrophic long-period waves)||Hours||Up to 10 m|
|Abrupt change in land level||Minutes||Up to 10 m|
Long term changes
Various factors affect the volume or mass of the ocean, leading to long-term changes in eustatic sea level. The primary influence is that of temperature on seawater density and the amounts of water in rivers, lakes, glaciers, polar ice caps andsea ice. Over much longer geological timescales, changes in the shape of the oceanic basins and in land/sea distribution will also affect sea level.
Observational and modelling studies of mass loss from glaciers and ice caps indicate a contribution to sea-level rise of 0.2 to 0.4 mm/yr averaged over the 20th century.