How do they measure sea level?

An image if an island in the middle of a sea.
Getting an accurate measurement of sea level is very hard. Still, it is an important measurement because having an accurate sea level measurement makes it possible to accurately measure the height of everything on land. Peter Cade / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • Measuring sea level accurately is challenging due to tides, waves, atmospheric pressure, temperature changes and water density.
  • Scientists employ tide gauges and satellites to measure sea level, using long-term data to account for the natural fluctuations and achieve a more accurate average.
  • The general scientific consensus indicates that oceans are rising approximately 2 millimeters per year.

An accurate measurement of sea level is very hard to pin down. But it is an important measurement for two main reasons:

  • By having an accurate sea level measurement, it is possible to measure the height of everything on land accurately. For example, calculating the height of Mt. Everest is complicated by sea-level measurement inaccuracies.
  • By knowing sea level, we can determine if the oceans are rising or falling over time. The concern is that global warming and other weather changes caused by man might be leading to an overall rise in sea level. If so, coastal cities are in big trouble.

The problem with measuring the sea level is that there are so many things that perturb it. If you could take planet Earth and move it out into deep space so that the sun, moons and other planets did not affect it and there were no temperature variations worldwide, then everything would settle down like a still pond. Rain and wind would stop, and so would the rivers. Then you could measure sea level accurately. If you did this, the level of the ocean's water projected across the entire planet would be called the geoid. On land, you can think of the geoid as the level that ocean water would have if you were to dig a canal from the ocean's shore to any point on land.


But the Earth is not in deep space -- it is in the middle of a chaotic solar system. There are all sorts of things changing the water level at any given point, including:

  • The tides, caused by the moon
  • Large and small waves caused by wind and the tides
  • High- and low-pressure areas in the atmosphere, which change the surface level of the ocean
  • Temperature changes in the ocean, which change the density and volume of the water
  • Rainfall and river water flowing into the ocean

If you were to stand on the ocean shore and try to measure sea level with a ruler, you would find it to be impossible -- the level changes by the second (waves), by the hour (tides) and by the week (planetary and solar orbit changes). To get around this, scientists try using tide gauges. A tide gauge is a large (1 foot [30 cm] or more in diameter), long pipe with a small hole below the water line. This pipe is often called a stilling well. Even though waves are changing the water level outside the gauge constantly, they have little effect inside the gauge. The sea level can be read relatively accurately inside this pipe. If read on a regular basis over a time span of years and then averaged, you can get a measurement of sea level.

You can see that getting an accurate reading (for example, down to the millimeter level) is extremely difficult. Satellites are now used as well, but they suffer from many of the same problems. Scientists do the best they can, using extremely long time spans, to try to figure out what the sea level is and whether or not it is rising. The general consensus seems to be that the oceans rise about 2 millimeters per year (although the last link below has an interesting discussion on that consensus...).

These links will help you learn more:


Frequently Asked Questions

How do seasonal changes affect sea level measurements?
Seasonal changes can significantly affect sea level, due to variations in temperature, melting of polar ice and rainfall patterns.
What advancements have improved sea level measurement accuracy?
Advancements such as satellite altimetry and more sophisticated tide gauges have improved the accuracy of sea level measurements by providing more consistent and widespread data collection.