Date of Award

Summer 2021

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Ocean & Earth Sciences



Committee Director

John Klinck

Committee Director

Ben Hamlington

Committee Member

Hans-Peter Plag

Committee Member

Soenke Dangendor

Committee Member

Tal Ezer

Committee Member

Tom Allen


Sea levels are rising globally due to anthropogenic climate change. However, local sea levels that impact coastal ecosystems often differ from the global trend, sometimes by a factor of two or more. Improved understanding of this regional variability provides insights into geophysical processes and has implications for coastal communities developing resilience to ongoing sea-level rise. This dissertation conducts an investigation of sea level and its contributing processes at multiple spatial scales. Focusing on primarily interannual time-scales and data-driven approaches, new data sources and technologies are utilized to reduce current uncertainties.

First, sea-level trends are assessed over the global ocean and at coastlines using data from the recently launched ICESat-2 satellite. These trends agree well with independent measurements, while also filling observational gaps along undersampled coastlines and at high-latitudes. Next, the spatial focus is narrowed to the U.S. East Coast, which is experiencing exceptionally high rates of relative sea-level rise, largely due to land subsidence. By incorporating new state-of-the-art estimates of land-ice melt, an existing Bayesian hierarchical space-time model is expanded to assess the relative contributions of sea surface height and vertical land motion to 20th century relative-sea level change. Model results confirm previous findings that identified regional-scale geological processes as the primary driver of spatial variability in East Coast relative sea level. By rigorously quantifying uncertainties, constraints are placed on the current state of knowledge with clear directions for future research.

Finally, small-scale vertical land motion in Hampton Roads, VA is investigated using the remote-sensing technology of Interferometric Synthetic Aperture Radar (InSAR). Two different data sources and processing strategies are implemented which independently reveal substantial rates of vertical land motion that vary over short spatial scales. The results highlight the importance of vertical land motion in exacerbating negative impacts of relative sea-level rise such as flooding and inundation. Overall, this study leverages new spaceborne sensors, an innovative statistical model, and state-of-the-art processing strategies to enhance our understanding of ongoing sea-level change.


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