The global sea level may be rising faster than previously thought, according to a study which suggests that the current measurement method underestimates the severity of the problem.
The research, published in the journal Science, questions the reliability of how sea levels rise in low-lying coastal areas such as southern Louisiana in the US is measured.
Relative sea-level rise, which is a combination of rising water level and subsiding land, is traditionally measured using tide gauges.
However, researchers from Tulane University in the US argue that in coastal Louisiana, tide gauges tell only a part of the story.
Tide gauges in such areas are anchored an average of 20 metres into the earth rather than at the ground surface.
"As a result, tide gauges do not record subsidence occurring in the shallow subsurface and thus underestimate rates of relative sea-level rise," said Molly Keogh, a PhD student at Tulane University.
"This study shows that we need to completely rethink how we measure sea level rise in rapidly subsiding coastal lowlands," said Torbjorn Tornqvist, a professor at Tulane University.
The study found that while tide gauges can accurately measure subsidence that occurs below their foundations, they miss out on the shallow subsidence component.
With at least 60 per cent of subsidence occurring in the top five metres of the sediment column, tide gauges are not capturing the primary contributor to relative sea-level rise.
An alternative approach is to measure shallow subsidence using surface-elevation tables, inexpensive mechanical instruments that record surface elevation change in wetlands.
Coastal Louisiana already has a network of more than 300 of these instruments in place.
The data can then be combined with measurements of deep subsidence from Global Positioning System (GPS) data and satellite measurements of sea-level rise, Keogh said.
Rates of relative sea-level rise obtained from this approach are substantially higher than rates as inferred from tide-gauge data.
"We, therefore, conclude that low-elevation coastal zones may be at higher risk of flooding, and within a shorter time horizon, than previously assumed," Keogh said.
She said the research has implications for coastal communities across the globe.
"Around the world, communities in low-lying coastal areas may be more vulnerable to flooding than we realised. This has implications for coastal management, city planners and emergency planners," Keogh said.
"They are planning based on a certain timeline, and if sea level is rising faster than what they are planning on, that is going to be a problem," she said.