Sea levels in the Pacific

I recently visited Port Vila, capital of the Pacific island nation of Vanuatu (the photo above is from the Port Vila waterfront). Port Vila is the site of a sea-level measuring station. It is interesting that, although local newspapers are deeply concerned about sea level rise, the average sea level rise between 1993 and 2017 at Port Vila was essentially zero (see chart below, which uses LOESS smoothing of monthly measurements).

How can this be? Aren’t global sea levels rising at 2–3 mm per year? Well, “global sea level” is a rather theoretical concept. Ocean temperatures are not uniform. Some islands are rising out of the ocean. Others are sinking. Air pressure, and the El Niño Southern Oscillation cycle, have a huge effect on sea levels too. As they say, it’s complicated.

The NASA map below shows that some areas of the Pacific have actually seen a long-term reduction in sea level (independent of any upward or downward movement of land). Other areas, of course, have seen quite rapid increases (the increases and decreases average out to a rise of about 3 mm per year). The map covers data only up to 2008, however. Since 2008 was roughly the peak for the Port Vila data, it doesn’t quite explain the last decade of the graph above. If I had to guess, I’d assume that some of those sea-level-decrease areas on the map had shifted a bit.


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