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USGS Chesapeake Bay Activities

Science Summary—Sea-Level Rise and Chesapeake Bay

Prepared by Thomas M. Cronin, U.S. Geological Survey
(Released May 2013)

Fig 1 and link to larger image. Map of Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries showing locations of sites where sediment cores were collected from 1995 to 2006 to study sea-level rise and the formation of the modern Chesapeake Bay Credit Deb Willard.

Figure 1


As the largest and most productive estuary in North America, Chesapeake Bay is a vital ecological and economic resource. The Chesapeake Bay watershed includes many low-lying areas that are threatened by rising sea level. In addition to creating the potential for erosion, inundation, and storm-surge effects, a rise in sea level can affect the salinity of and circulation in the bay (Hilton and others, 2008). Rising sea level also can affect water quality and alter major nearshore habitats that support fisheries and waterfowl and provide valuable property for the citizens near Chesapeake Bay.

Sea level changes globally and regionally over time scales ranging from millions of years to decades. These changes are a result of many complex factors (Cronin, 2011). Scientists are improving the current understanding of the causes and patterns of sea-level change, both globally and in Chesapeake Bay; determining the best available estimates of future sea-level rise; and informing decision makers about the possible effects of sea-level change so that effective mitigation measures can be developed.

U.S. Geological Survey Studies of Sea-Level Rise

This science summary is one in a series that is designed to facilitate the understanding and application of results of relevant U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) studies by Chesapeake Bay resource managers and policy makers. It provides a brief overview of the most recent published work by the USGS and collaborators on the importance of sea-level rise in Chesapeake Bay, geologic records of sea-level change, modern sea-level rise, and projected rates of future sea-level rise; an understanding of how this information can be used to develop effective management policies and practices; and a list of references for additional information. The USGS is working with the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and other partners to evaluate the potential effects of sea-level rise in Chesapeake Bay as part of the President’s Chesapeake Bay Executive Order (Chesapeake Bay Program, 2009).

Geologic Records of Sea-Level Change

Geologic records of sea level in and adjacent to Chesapeake Bay provide critical information on the rate and magnitude of sea-level rise during periods of warm climate. Research by the USGS and others shows that sea level rose rapidly during warm interglacial periods, inundating large regions of the Atlantic Coastal Plain during periods of high global sea level, primarily as a result of (1) changes in the volume of land ice (glaciers and ice sheets), and (2) vertical land movements. Some key findings include:

Modern Sea-Level Rise

Two major factors contribute to global sea-level rise: thermal expansion from increasing ocean heat content, and the melting of glaciers and the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets. Since about 2003, glaciers and ice sheets (fig. 2) have contributed a greater proportion of the global sea-level rise than thermal expansion (Meier and others, 2007; Cogley, 2009; Rignot, Bamber, and others, 2008; Rignot, Box, and others, 2008). Today’s glaciers and ice sheets store enough water to raise sea level by about 68 to 70 m. Calculated rates of global mean sea-level rise range from 1.7 to 3.2 mm/yr, depending on the time period examined (Cazenave and Llovel, 2010; Church and White, 2011). Detecting fluctuations in the rate of sea-level change can be difficult as a result of the short period of record of tide gages and chronological uncertainty in marsh paleo-sea-level studies (Larsen and Clark, 2006). Some key findings include:

Projecting Future Sea-Level Rise

Projecting future sea-level rise is one of the most challenging aspects of the study of climate change. Although uncertainty remains great, empirical and modeling methods used in recent studies have provided new estimates of the cumulative rise in sea level by 2100 (Rahmstorf, 2007, 2010; Vermeer and Rahmstorf, 2009; Pfeffer and others, 2008; Bahr and others, 2009; Rignot and others, 2011). Some key findings include:

Past Impacts of Sea-Level Rise on the Ecology of the Bay

Figure 3 and link to larger image. Showing Digital Elevation Model (DEM) of sea level at Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge.

The USGS has studied past conditions in Chesapeake Bay to help determine how the bay may respond to climate change in the future. Some key findings include:

bulletImplications for Management Policies and Practices and Next Steps

References Cited

Bahr, D.B., Dyurgerov, Mark, and Meier, M.F., 2009, Sea-level rise from glaciers and ice caps: A lower bound: Geophysical Research Letters, v. 36, no. 3, L03501, 4 p., doi: 10.1029/2008GL036309.

Bratton, J.F., Colman, S.M., Thieler, E.R., and Seal, R.R., II, 2003, Birth of the modern Chesapeake Bay estuary between 7.4 and 8.2 ka and implications for global sea-level rise: Geo-Marine Letters, v. 22, no. 4, p. 188-197, DOI 10.1007/s00367-002-0112-z.

Cahoon, D.R., 2007, Factors affecting coastal wetland loss and restoration, in Phillips, S.W., ed., Synthesis of U.S. Geological Survey science for the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem and implications for environmental management: U.S. Geological Survey Circular 1316, chapter 12, p. 50-53 (also available online at

Cazenave, Anny, and Llovel, William, 2010, Contemporary sea level rise: Annual Review of Marine Science, v. 2, p. 145-173, DOI: 10.1146/annurev-marine-120308-081105.

Chesapeake Bay Program, 2009, Chesapeake Bay Executive Order—About the Executive Order: accessed April 9, 2013, at

Church, J.A., and White, N.J., 2011, Sea-level rise from the late 19th to the early 21st century: Surveys in Geophysics, v. 32, p. 585-602, doi: 10.1007/s10712-011-9119-1.

Cogley, J.G., 2009, Geodetic and direct mass-balance measurements--Comparison and joint analysis: Annals of Glaciology, v. 50, p. 96–100.

Colman, S.M., Halka, J.P., Hobbs, C.H., III, Mixon, R.B., and Foster, D.S., 1990, Ancient channels of the Susquehanna River beneath Chesapeake Bay and the Delmarva Peninsula: Geological Society of America Bulletin, v. 102, no. 9, p. 1,268–1,279.

Colman, S.M., and Mixon, R.B., 1988, The record of major Quaternary sea-level changes in a large Coastal Plain estuary, Chesapeake Bay, eastern United States: Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology, v. 68, no. 2-4, p. 99–116.

Cronin, T.M., 2011, Was pre-twentieth century sea level stable?: EOS, Transactions of the American Geophysical Union, v. 92, no. 49, p. 455-456, doi: 10.1029/2011EO490009.

Cronin, T.M., 2012, Rapid sea-level rise: Quaternary Science Reviews, v. 56, p. 11-30.

Cronin, T.M., Dwyer, G.S., Kamiya, T., Schwede, S., and Willard, D.A., 2003, Medieval warm period, little ice age and 20th century temperature variability from Chesapeake Bay: Global and Planetary Change, v. 36, no. 1-2, p. 17-29.

Cronin, T.M., Hayo, K., Thunell, R.C., Dwyer, D.S., Saenger, C., and Willard, D.A., 2010, The medieval climate anomaly and little ice age in Chesapeake Bay and the North Atlantic Ocean: Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology, v. 297, no. 2, p. 299-310, doi: 10.1016/j.palaeo.2010.08.009.

Cronin, T.M., Thunell, R., Dwyer, G.S., Saenger, C., Mann, M.E., Vann, C., and Seal, R.R., II, 2005, Multiproxy evidence of Holocene climate variability from estuarine sediments, eastern North America: Paleoceanography, v. 20, no. 4, PA4006, 21 p., doi: 1029/2005PA001145.

Cronin, T.M., Vogt, P.R., Willard, D.A., Thunell, R., Halka, J., Berke, M., and Pohlman, J., 2007, Rapid sea level rise and ice sheet response to 8,200-year climate event: Geophysical Research Letters, v. 34, no. 20, p. L20603, 6 p., doi: 10.1029/2007GL031318.

Cronin, T.M., and Walker, H.A., 2006, Restoring coastal ecosystems and abrupt climate change: Climatic Change, v. 74, no. 4, p. 369-376, DOI: 10.1007/s10584-005-9029-7.

Grinsted, A., Moore, J.C., and Jevrejeva, S., 2010, Reconstructing sea level from paleo and projected temperatures 200 to 2100 AD: Climate Dynamics, v. 34, no. 4, p. 461-472, DOI: 10.1007/s00382-008-0507-2.

Hilton, T.W., Najjar, R.G., Zhong, L., and Li, M., 2008, Is there a signal of sea-level rise in Chesapeake Bay salinity?: Journal of Geophysical Research, v. 113, no. C9, C09002, 12 p., doi: 10.1029/2007JC004247.

Larsen, C.E., and Clark, I., 2006, A search for scale in sea-level studies: Journal of Coastal Research, v. 22, no. 4, p. 788-800, DOI: 10.2112/03-0123.1.

Larsen, Curt, Clark, Inga, Guntenspergen, Glenn, Cahoon, Don, Caruso, Vincent, Hupp, Cliff, and Yanosky, Tom, 2004, The Blackwater NWR inundation model. Rising sea level on a low-lying coast: Land use planning for wetlands, version 1.0: U.S. Geological Survey Open-File Report 04-1302, available online only at

Meier, M.F., Dyurgerov, M.B., Rick, U.K., O’Neel, Shad, Pfeffer, W.T., Anderson, R.S., Anderson, S.P., and Glazovsky, A.F., 2007, Glaciers dominate eustatic sea-level rise in the 21st century: Science, v. 317, no. 5841, p. 1,064-1,067, DOI: 10.1126/science.1143906.

Pfeffer, W.T., Harper, J.T., and O'Neel, S., 2008, Kinematic constraints on glacier contributions to 21st-century sea-level rise: Science, v. 321, no. 5894, p. 1,340–1,343, DOI: 10.1126/science.1159099.

Pope, J.P., and Burbey, T.J., 2004, Multiple-aquifer characterization from single borehole extensometer records: Ground Water, v. 42, no. 1, p. 45-58.

Rahmstorf, S., 2007, A semi-empirical approach to projecting future sea-level rise: Science, v. 315, no. 5810, p. 368–370, DOI: 10.1126/science.1135456.

Rahmstorf, S., 2010, A new view on sea level rise: Nature Reports Climate Change, v. 4, p. 44-45, doi: 10.1038/climate.2010.29.

Rignot, Eric, Bamber, J.L., van den Broeke, M.R., Davis, Curt, Li, Yonghong, van de Berg, W.J., and van Meijgaard, Erik, 2008, Recent Antarctic ice mass loss from radar interferometry and regional climate modelling: Nature Geoscience, v. 1, p. 106-110, doi: 10.1038/ngeo102.

Rignot, E., Box, J.E., Burgess, E., and Hanna, E., 2008, Mass balance of the Greenland ice sheet from 1958 to 2007: Geophysical Research Letters, v. 35, no. 20, L20502 5 p., doi: 10.1029/2008GL035417.

Rignot, E., Velicogna, I., van den Broeke, M.R., Monaghan, A., and Lenaerts, J.T.M., 2011, Acceleration of the contribution of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets to sea level rise: Geophysical Research Letters, v. 38, no. 5, L05503, 5 p., doi: 10.1029/2011GL046583.

Saenger, C., Cronin, T., Thunell, R., and Vann, C., 2006, Modelling river discharge and precipitation from estuarine salinity in the northern Chesapeake Bay: Application to Holocene palaeoclimate: The Holocene, v. 16, no. 4, p. 467-477, doi: 10.1191/0959683606hl944rp.

Saenger, C., Cronin, T.M., Willard, D., Halka, J., and Kerhin, R., 2008, Increased terrestrial to ocean sediment and carbon fluxes in the northern Chesapeake Bay associated with twentieth century land alteration: Estuaries and Coasts, v. 31, p. 492-500, DOI: 10.1007/s12237-008-9048-5.

Vermeer, Martin, and Rahmstorf, Stefan, 2009, Global sea level linked to global temperature: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, v. 106, no. 51, p. 21,527–21,532, doi: 10.1073/pnas.0907765106.

Willard, D.A., Bernhardt, C.E., Korejwo, D.A., and Meyers, S.R., 2005, Impact of millennial-scale Holocene climate variability on eastern North American terrestrial ecosystems--Pollen-based climatic reconstruction: Global and Planetary Change, v. 47, p. 17-35.

Willard, D.A., and Cronin, T.M., 2007, Paleoecology and ecosystem restoration: Case studies from Chesapeake Bay and the Florida Everglades: Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, v. 5, no. 9, p. 491-498, doi: 10.1890/070015.

For Additional Information

Chao, B.F., Wu, Y.H., and Li, Y.S., 2008, Impact of artificial reservoir water impoundment on global sea level: Science, v. 320, no. 5873, p. 212–214, DOI: 10.1126/science.1154580.

Cronin, T.M., 2000, Initial report on IMAGES V cruise of the Marion-Dufresne to the Chesapeake Bay June 20-22, 1999: U.S. Geological Survey Open-File Report 00-306, available online only at

Cronin, T.M., Willard, D.A., Newell, W., Holmes, C., Halka, J., and Robertson, M., 2004, Introduction to Pocomoke Sound sediments, chap. 1 of Cronin, T.M., ed., Pocomoke Sound sedimentary and ecosystem history: U.S. Geological Survey Open-File Report 2004-1350, available online only at

Gohn, G.S., Koeberl, C., Miller, K.G., Reimold, W.U., Browning, J.V., Cockell, C.S., Horton, J.W., Jr., Kenkmann, T., Kulpecz, A.A., Powars, D.S., Sanford, W.E., and Voytek, M.A., 2008, Deep drilling into the Chesapeake Bay impact structure: Science, v. 320, no. 5884, p. 1,740-1,745, DOI: 10.1126/science.1158708.

Holmes, W., and Marot, M., 2004, Sediment and chemical flux history in the Pocomoke Sound as defined by short lived isotopic analyses, chap. 2 of Cronin, T.M., ed., Pocomoke Sound sedimentary and ecosystem history: U.S. Geological Survey Open-File Report 2004-1350, available online only at

Konikow, L.J., 2011, Contribution of global groundwater depletion since 1900 to sea-level rise: Geophysical Research Letters. v. 38, p. L17401,

Langland, Michael, and Cronin, Thomas, eds., A summary report of sediment processes in Chesapeake Bay and watershed: U.S. Geological Survey Water-Resources Investigations Report 03-4123, 109 p., accessed August 29, 2012, at

Milly, P.C.D., Cazenave, Anny, Famiglietti, J.S., Gornitz, V., Laval, K., Lettenmaier, D.P., Sahagian, D.L., Wahr, J.M., and Wilson, C., 2010, Terrestrial water storage contributions to sea level rise and variability, in Church, J.A., Woodworth, P.L., Aarup, T., and Wilson, W.S., eds., Understanding sea level rise and variability: Oxford, U.K., Wiley-Blackwell, p. 226-255.

Ngo-Duc, T., Laval, K., Polcher, J., Lombard, A., and Cazenave, A., 2005, Effects of land water storage on global mean sea level over the past half century: Geophysical Research Letters, v. 32, no. 9, p. L09704, DOI:10.1029/2005GL022719.

Phillips, S.W., ed., 2007, Synthesis of U.S. Geological Survey science for the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem and implications for environmental management: U.S. Geological Survey Circular 1316, 63 p. (also available online at

U.S. Geological Survey, 2004, Lithologic description of piston cores from Chesapeake Bay, Maryland, in Investigations of Atlantic estuaries—Chesapeake Bay: accessed August 29, 2012, at

U.S. Geological Survey, 2009, Investigations of Atlantic estuaries—Chesapeake Bay: accessed August 29, 2012, at

Yin, Jianjun, Schlesinger, M.E., and Stouffer, R.J., 2009, Model projections of rapid sea-level rise on the northeast coast of the United States: Nature Geoscience, v. 2, p. 262-266, doi:10.1038/ngeo462.

For further information about this research contact Thomas M. Cronin (

Contact Scott Phillips ( for additional information about USGS Chesapeake Bay studies.

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