East Coast Sea Level Rise Tied to Slowing of Gulf Stream

By Tom Yulsman | February 14, 2013 9:09 pm

Sea level rise has been accelerating along the mid-Atlantic coast of the United States, and now, a paper published in the February issue of the Journal of Geophysical Research: Oceans confirms the cause: the Gulf Stream is slowing.

My colleague Michael Lemonick has an excellent post over at Climate Central explaining the science and the background in some detail. But for ImaGeo, I thought it would be valuable to add a visual perspective in the form of the visualization above.

Produced by a computer model, it shows in breathtaking detail the Gulf Stream meandering and looping from the Gulf of Mexico up the East Coast and across the North Atlantic towards Western Europe. It was produced as part of of a NASA project called ECCO2. The colors correspond to sea surface temperature, with the warmer temperatures of the current quite evident.

Looking at the visualization, you might be able to get a sense of how a slowing Gulf Stream may contribute to sea level rise along the East Coast. It’s northeasterly flow actually sucks water away from the land — and the effect isn’t really subtle. As Lemonick reports, it has kept sea level in the region up to a meter and a half lower than it would otherwise be.

But as the Gulf Stream slows — a predicted consequence of global warming — the effect is lessening, and sea level is now rising faster than in the past. For cities like New York, this could mean trouble over the coming decades, especially when storms like Superstorm Sandy pile a significant surge of water atop a higher ocean.



  • Kevin Bonham

    Does this mean that sea level is dropping on the eastern side of the Atlantic? Else, where is the water coming from?

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Miles-McCullough/1026691196 Miles McCullough

      Presumably icebergs. Differential rates of increase do not necessarily mean a drop anywhere.

    • Tom Yulsman

      This is a very good question. I honestly do not know the answer. Common sense would say that the Gulf Stream had been carrying the extra water to the northeast, where it added to melt water from Greenland. Presumably, that would have meant higher sea level rise there. But I don’t know whether that was the case. Now that the Gulf Stream is slowing down, less water is being pulled away from the U.S. eastern seaboard and sea level is rising there. Does that mean sea level farther to the northeast will be lower than it otherwise would have been? I’ll try to find out.



ImaGeo is a visual blog focusing on the intersection of imagery, imagination and Earth. It focuses on spectacular visuals related to the science of our planet, with an emphasis (although not an exclusive one) on the unfolding Anthropocene Epoch.

About Tom Yulsman

Tom Yulsman is Director of the Center for Environmental Journalism and a Professor of Journalism at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He also continues to work as a science and environmental journalist with more than 30 years of experience producing content for major publications. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Audubon, Climate Central, Columbia Journalism Review, Discover, Nieman Reports, and many other publications. He has held a variety of editorial positions over the years, including a stint as editor-in-chief of Earth magazine. Yulsman has written one book: Origins: the Quest for Our Cosmic Roots, published by the Institute of Physics in 2003.


See More


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

Collapse bottom bar