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Climate change is impacting so much around us: heat, flooding, health, wildlife, housing, and more. WUSF, in collaboration with the Florida Climate Reporting Network, is bringing you stories on how climate change is affecting you.

Rising Sea Levels Raise New Climate Change Conversations

National Environmental Satellite Data and Information Service
Jason-3 is a satellite that records sea levels for scientific research.

No more computer models or projections. Finally – concrete data.

A scientific paper published in February may pave the way for a new conversation about rising sea levels using data instead of projections.

Gary Mitchum, co-author of the paper and Associate Dean at the College of Marine Science at the University of South Florida, says the research is more than just another explanation of the effects of global climate change.

“In science, data is king,” Mitchum said. “I’ve been telling people I think it’s a game-changer in that the discussion can now switch from is this just an error in the models, the computer models, or is it really in the data?’’

The paper immediately received international attention and went viral within the scientific community.

The team of researchers began compiling data in 1993. They released the statistics from satellite altimetry, the measurement of height or altitude from a satellite.

“We’re hoping that what this is going to do is allow people to stop worrying about the fact that it’s only the models seeing it, that we actually see it in the data now too and we can have a conversation about what we need to be doing,” Mitchum said.

Using data from 25 years of observation, researchers concluded that previous projections by computer models were accurate with 99 percent confidence. The global average sea level rose about 3 millimeters per year.

Now, the scientific community has recorded data that confirms these research methods.

“One of the reasons people are unconvinced (about rising sea levels) is because of the reliance on computer models,” Mitchum said. “All I’m trying to do in this paper is tell the people that are saying ‘I don’t want to have this discussion right now because I don’t believe computer models,’ we’re saying the data are confirming what the projections are saying, so can we please have this discussion?”

Based on the study, the year 2100 could see sea levels rise by 53 to 72 centimeters.

This is important to Tampa, as a 2013 study puts it among the ten most at-risk cities in the world of experiencing damaging floods.

Another list from independent science research organization Climate Centralplaces Tampa and St. Petersburg among the 25 U.S. cities that are most vulnerable to coastal flooding. 19 of the other cities on that list are also in Florida.

Mitchum doesn’t expect the paper to make any waves with politicians. Instead, he hopes to convince people to talk about the effects of global climate change.

“This whole discussion now changes from ‘Is it real?’ to ‘What do we need to do about it?’” Mitchum said.

Sam Newlon interning as a WUSF/USF Zimmerman School digital news reporter for spring 2018.