Assessing Local Sea Level Rise

Ken Tabbutt, The Evergreen State College
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This activity was selected for the On the Cutting Edge Reviewed Teaching Collection

This activity has received positive reviews in a peer review process involving five review categories. The five categories included in the process are

  • Scientific Accuracy
  • Alignment of Learning Goals, Activities, and Assessments
  • Pedagogic Effectiveness
  • Robustness (usability and dependability of all components)
  • Completeness of the ActivitySheet web page

For more information about the peer review process itself, please see

This page first made public: Oct 9, 2012


Students will read primary scientific literature, work collaboratively, think critically, and utilize GIS as a tool to visualize and quantify spatial and temporal changes in hydrological systems. This workshop integrates (1) a review and discussion of literature on global climate change and sea level rise, (2) collaborative work to adopt a model for eustatic sea level rise, and (3) the use of GIS as a tool to assess the local impacts of this model. The activity can be also be done using topographic maps instead of GIS.

Learning Goals

Scientific literature (search) and review: critical thinking, understanding of the complexity of global climate change, sea level rise, and dynamic systems.
Justification of Sea Level model: collaboration, synthesis, effective communication, critical thinking, accuracy and precision.
Geographic Information Systems model: GIS skill building, data analysis,
(Optional) Topographic mapping: topographic analysis
Presentation: oral communication.

Context for Use

This workshop is intended for relatively small class sizes with the GIS resources and small-group (3-4 students) presentations limiting the class size. It would be ideal to have fewer than 40 students (10 groups of 4). The activities require (a) access to scientific literature, which could be the internet; (b) space for small groups to meet and develop and present spatial and temporal models; (c) classroom space for short model presentations; (d) ArcGIS workstations with Spatial Analysis loaded or (optional) UGSG topographic map of study area. Student would need background in global climate change, biogeochemical cycles, and some ArcGIS or mapping skills. This workshop would take at least 6-8 hours of class time.

Description and Teaching Materials

Scientific Literature Search:

Access to scientific literature (library or internet). The student could (a) be asked to find literature on their own; (b) be given citations; or (3) be provided the relevant literature.
Each student must read at least one scientific paper or report that models sea level fluctuation due to (anthropogenic) global climate change. They must take note of
  • What assumptions were used to develop the model.
  • The justification for these assumptions.
  • The time (temporal) and sea level (spatial) predicted.
  • A critique of the model with specific reference to accuracy and precision.
Sources (attached) have a few primary sources and a link to the University of Colorado Sea Level Research Group library.
Small Group work to develop and justify model:
No material needed.

Groups of 3-4 students will get together to discuss the models and decide on a single model that they will use GIS to visualize. Each student will present the results of their research and collectively they will critique the various models. They will need to determine a process for choosing one of the models and justify that selection. Collectively, the students also need to compile a list of the similarities and differences in the assumptions used to develop their models.

The entire class convenes and each group gives a short (5 minute) report on their preferred model and a couple of important issues they discovered when they compared their research.

Geographical Information Systems component
  • ArcGIS, ArcMap with Spatial Analyst extension
  • LIDAR or DEMs of study area. In this example, I would use the southern Puget Sound but other (local) coastal areas data could be used. Students could be asked to choose a location and obtain the topographic data.
  • Coverages of roads, shorelines, other (plats, orthophotos, streams)
  • Tidal data (annual max.)
(Optional) Topographic Map component:
  • Copy of USGS Topographic map of the study area (1:24,000)
  • Colored pencils

Access to a classroom with projector (Powerpoint).

Each small group will report out on their mapping exercise and the impact of their sea level rise model on the local community.


The learning goals (critical thinking, understanding the complexity of global climate change, sea level rise, and dynamic systems) will be assessed for each part of the exercise.

1. Scientific Literature Search: Students will submit the citation for the scientific paper or report that they review and a brief summary of
  • What assumptions were used to develop the model.
  • The justification for these assumptions.
  • The time (temporal) and sea level (spatial) predicted.
  • A critique of the model with specific reference to accuracy and precision.
This summary will provide evidence of the student's ability to conceptualize, analyze, and evaluate scientific information. It will also reflect scientific literature research skills and their knowledge of the scientific method and biogeochemical processes.

2. Justification of Sea Level Model: Students will work together and agree on a common model and then present that model to the rest of the class. If the small group work occurs during class time, the faculty can observe how the group collaborates and synthesizes the information that each member brings to the conversation. The short (5 minute) report on their preferred model and a couple of important issues will provide a mechanism to asses their ability to collaborate, critical thinking skills, and oral communication skills.

The presentations and subsequent questions from the rest of the class will provide information about their depth of knowledge and critical thinking skills.

3. GIS Exercise: Students will work in their small groups to create spatial maps of their sea level rise models. They will work through an GIS lab that will assess their GIS skills and their ability to analyze data.

4. Final Presentation: The small groups will report out on their sea level rise models and the local impacts of the change in sea level. Their presentations will allow their skills in collaboration, organization, and oral communication to be assessed.

References and Resources

A few primary sources:

Cazenave, A.; Nerem, R. S., 2004, "Present-day Sea Level Change: Observations and Causes." Reviews of Geophysics, v. 42.

IPCC Fourth Assessment Report: Climate Change 2007 (AR4) Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA.: Cambridge University Press.

Miller, L. and Douglas, B. C., 2004. "Mass and Volume Contributions to Twentieth-century Global Sea Level Rise." Nature v. 428, p. 406–409.

Nicholls, R.J., P.P. Wong, V.R. Burkett, J.O. Codignotto, J.E. Hay, R.F. McLean, S. Ragoonaden and C.D. Woodroffe. 2007. "Coastal Systems and Low-lying Areas. Climate Change 2007: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability. Contribution of Working Group II to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, M.L. Parry, O.F. Canziani, J.P. Palutikof, P.J. van der Linden and C.E. Hanson, Eds., Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, 315-356.

Titus, J. G., and Narayanan, V., 1996. "The Risk of Sea Level Rise: A Delphic Monte Carlo Analysis in which Twenty Researchers Specify Subjective Probability Distributions for Model Coefficients within their Respective Areas of Expertise." Climatic Change, v. 33, p. 151-212.

Warrick, R. A., C. L. Provost, M. F. Meier, J. Oerlemans, and P. L. Woodworth, 1996: "Changes in Sea Level." In Houghton, John Theodore. Climate Change 1995: The Science of Climate Change. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. pp. 359–405.

University of Colorado Sea Level Research library