To investigate the role of climate change, the scientists turned to two sets of climate model runs, known as “large ensembles”: one created using the NCAR-based Community Earth System Model and one created using the Earth System Model at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. These large ensembles—many model simulations by the same model, describing the same time period—allow researchers to disentangle natural variability from the impacts of climate change. With enough runs, these impacts can be isolated even when they are relatively small compared to the impacts from natural variability.
The climate models suggest that in regions that have seen more or less sea level rise than average, as much as half of that variation may be attributed to climate change. The scientists also found that the impacts from climate change on regional sea level rise sometimes mimic the impacts from natural cycles.
“It turns out the sea level rise response to climate change in the Pacific resembles what happens during a particular phase of the Pacific Decadal Oscillation,” Fasullo said. “This explains why it’s been so difficult to determine how much of the pattern was natural or not, until now.”