Relative sea level

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Definition of Relative sea level:
The relative sea level is the mean sea level related to a local reference land level.
This is the common definition for Relative sea level, other definitions can be discussed in the article

Relative sea level change

The relative sea level changes as a consequence of Sea level rise. It changes also due to vertical motions of the land level.

Global warming is a major cause of sea-level rise. The global mean sea level rises as a consequence of:

  • Increase of the ocean water mass, due to melting of land ice (in particular the polar ice caps) and due to decrease of groundwater and surface water storage on land;
  • Expansion of the ocean water volume due to decrease of water density with increasing temperature.

The influence of global warming on sea-level rise varies along the world's coastlines as a consequence of [1]:

  • Residual changes in the strength and distribution of ocean currents;
  • Residual changes in atmospheric pressure distribution;
  • Residual local changes in seawater salinity;
  • Changes in the earth gravitational field related to melting of polar ice caps.

Land level change occurs as a consequence of:

  • Isostatic rebound: adjustment of the earth crust due to melting of polar ice caps, causing a rise of the formerly covered areas and a sink of adjacent areas that were not covered;
  • Tectonic activity;
  • Land subsidence due to soil compaction caused by groundwater extraction, oil/gas mining and/or drainage of organic soils.

Relative sea level change is the net result of these different factors. This implies in most cases a relative rise of the mean sea level, which in some regions may even be substantially stronger than the rise of the global mean sea level. However, in some other regions with strong land uplift the relative sea level is still falling.

Response of the coastal system to sea level changes

The response of the coast to sea level changes can be classified as:

  • regressive coast, seaward coastline shift in the case of a falling relative sea level;
  • transgressive coast, landward coastline shift in the case of a rising relative sea level;
  • prograding coast, seaward coastline shift when net sediment supply to the coast dominates the impact of relative sea-level rise;
  • retrograding coast, landward coastline shift when net sediment supply to the coast is insufficient to compensate for relative sea-level rise.

See Also


  1. Slangen A.B.A., Katsman C.A., van der Wal R.S.W., Vermeersen L.L.A. and Riva R.E.M. 2012. Towards regional projections of twenty-first century sea-level change using IPCC SRES scenarios. Clim. Dyn. 38 (5): 1191-1209, doi:10.1007/s00382-011-1057-6.
The main author of this article is Anna Kroon
Please note that others may also have edited the contents of this article.

Citation: Anna Kroon (2024): Relative sea level. Available from [accessed on 25-07-2024]