There is some interesting new research which tidies up some of the assumptions made about sea-level positions in past glacial and interglacial periods. This sort of work has to be done in tectonically and isostatically stable areas -- you cannot get reliable data from coasts affected by glacial loading and unloading, or from areas affected by isostatic compensation or forebulge effects. It's all a bit complicated, but the message now emerging is that this happened:
MIS-11 Approx 400,000 years ago (the interglacial after the Anglian Glaciation) -- sea-level was approx 6-13m above its present level. That's high enough to explain the cutting of at least some of the rock-cut raised beach platforms that we see all around the coasts of Britain.
MIS-5e Ipswichian / Eemin Interglacial -- se-level seems to have risen to around +6m early in the interglacial, and then to have settled at around +2m for the whole period between 126,600 ± 400 and 116,000 ± 800 years ago. That's around 10,000 years of relative stability, with none of the violent oscillations which previous researchers have suggested. That means that the ice sheets at this time were relatively stable, at their "interglacial extent." Is a period of 10,000 years adequate to allow rock platform cutting on a substantial scale? I suggest that in some coastal situations it might be, so the old idea of "rock platforms old, raised beach accumulations new" is somewhat less reliable today than it was yesterday!
In the Devensian / Weichselian glacial episode, sea-level dropped to about -126m -- that's about 6m lower than many have previously assumed.
Research vital to understanding climate change
September 10, 2018
University of New Mexico
The magnitude and trajectory of sea-level change during the Last Interglacial, more specifically Marine Isotope Stage (MIS) 5e, is uncertain. To date the consensus view has been that sea-level may have been six to nine meters above present sea level. However, scientists are now questioning if those sea level fluctuations are accurate.
Visualize the following: The Earth's climate swings between cold glacial and warm interglacial periods; the last glacial interval was about 20,000 years ago; sea level was about 126 meters (413 feet) below modern sea level at that time; and the Holocene, which represents the last 12,000 years of climatic change, is an interglacial period.
The last interglacial period about 127,000 to 116,000 years ago was the last time sea level was as high as or even higher than present-day sea-level. Understanding sea level change during the last interglacial period, a time when the earth was slightly warmer the present, is an important research area for understanding future sea level rise due to global warming.
The magnitude and trajectory of sea-level change during the Last Interglacial, more specifically Marine Isotope Stage (MIS) 5e, is uncertain. To date the consensus view has been that sea-level may have been six to nine meters above present sea level, values that require additional melting of Greenland and the West Antarctic ice sheet and that there was one or more oscillations of up to several meters superimposed.
However, scientists at The University of New Mexico (UNM) and the University of South Florida (USF) and their international team of collaborators aren't so sure that those sea level fluctuations are accurate. According to new research published today, Monday, Sept. 10, in the journal Nature Geoscience titled, "A highly resolved record of relative sea-level in the western Mediterranean Sea during the Last Interglacial period," these scientists present a well-dated relative sea level record from the island of Mallorca in the western Mediterranean Sea for MIS-5e based on the occurrence of phreatic overgrowths on speleothems forming near sea level.
"Globally, the climate was warmer by 1 to 2 °C during the part of the Last Interglacial Period referred to as Marine Isotope Stage 5e (MIS-5e) between 127,000 and 116,000 years ago," said Victor Polyak the first author and co-principal investigator and senior research scientist in the UNM Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences. "While this is a well-studied period, we still do not know the exact behavior of sea level during MIS-5e. What we know for certain is that sea level was higher when climate was 1 to 2 °C warmer 120,000 years ago. For this reason, the history of MIS-5e sea level is important as an analog for what will happen to current sea level with warming climate into the future."
Until now, the best sea level markers were corals, because some species grow very close to sea level, and corals can be dated with the uranium-thorium method. Important reconstructions of MIS-5e sea level have been made from such coral studies. However, the scientific problem with coral is no one can ever be certain of how deep corals grow below sea level, and because they are made up of biogenic calcium carbonate, they are subject to alteration that slightly affects the uranium-thorium age measurements casting doubt regarding the accuracy of this method.
"The best studies of MIS-5e sea level have suggested that sea level during this period was 6 to 9 meters above present sea level, and that there were likely significant drops during the MIS-5e sea level highstand," said Polyak. "This is alarming, because it suggests that if we warm our climate by 1 to 2 °C, we might cause sea level to rise 6 to 9 meters (20 to 30 feet). This could happen quickly causing sea level to be unstable."
"The purpose of this research was to precisely reconstruct the sea level position during the last warm period, between 127,000 and 116,000 years ago, using some peculiar carbonate encrustations precipitated in littoral caves along the coast of Mallorca," says co-author and USF School of Geosciences karst geologist Bogdan P. Onac. "Most other known sea level studies for this period report elevations between 6 and 9 m -- so we wanted to better understand the magnitude, timing, and stability of sea level, since such information is critical for future projections of sea level change under a 1.5-2ºC global warming scenario."
Polyak, Onac, along with UNM Professor Yemane Asmerom, studied caves along the eastern coast of the Spanish island of Mallorca in the western Mediterranean. They utilized unique cave formations called phreatic overgrowths on speleothems (POS) that form naturally at the brackish cave water surface, which happens to be exactly equivalent with sea level in those caves near the coast. Phreatic overgrowths on speleothems form as carbon dioxide degasses from brackish cave water hydrologically connected to the Mediterranean Sea.
"POS are well-preserved," said Polyak, "and given that they can be dated, they provide very accurate sea level elevations for current and pre-existing sea levels. They consist of inorganic calcium carbonate (calcite and aragonite) and are dateable by the uranium-thorium method. Unlike corals, they are not prone to alteration, and therefore the uranium-thorium dates are accurate. Another benefit of POS is that they will continue to grow as long as sea level is stable at a given elevation."
Polyak and Asmerom dated 11 POS from eight different caves that exhibited POS at ~2 meters above present sea level. Forty-five uranium-thorium dates show that relative sea level remained stable. "This is the most accurate, best resolved sea level record for MIS-5e of the last interglacial period," said Polyak. "It provides exceptionally accurate timing of the sea level history during the above mentioned period and shows that it rose to 6 meters above present sea level ~127,000 years ago, it would have gradually fell to 2 meters by 122,000 years ago, and would have stayed at that elevation for the remainder of the sea level highstand to 116,000 years ago," says Onac. "The results suggest that if the pre-industrial temperature will be surpassed by 1.5 to 2°C, sea level will respond and rise 2 to 6 meters (7 to 20 feet) above present sea level."
Dr. Hay (Boston College) corrected the relative sea level record for glacio isostatic adjustment using nine different glacial isostatic models. Together, these models suggest that ice-equivalent sea level in Mallorca peaked at the start of MIS-5e then gradually decreased and stabilized by 122,000 years ago, until the highstand termination 116,000 years ago.
"One of the biggest obvious unknowns about the future is how much global real-estate we are going to lose to global warming and how fast it could happen," said Asmerom. "This is pretty awesome science; it's big stuff, global in scale. Beyond how high sea level is going to rise, we are also acutely in need of knowing how fast it will rise.
"If you take the older data, in some cases the suggestion that's how sea level rise by nine meters by mere warming of two degrees would be catastrophic for our present configuration of cities and in some cases island countries. This work clearly shows the most important findings that sea level didn't just go up and down. You had small changes in temperature and sea level stayed pretty stable."
The research reported in this study is the result of a collaborative NSF project in which USF is the lead organization. Field activities (cave visits for collecting samples and measuring their elevation), mineralogical, and crystallographical investigations on the mineral samples were performed by Onac at USF.
"Although these are significant findings, there are many aspects of sea level change that need further exploration," said Polyak. "As a result, the UNM and the University of South Florida team was awarded a new National Science Foundation Grant to continue the work in the Mediterranean."
Materials provided by University of New Mexico. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.
• Victor J. Polyak, Bogdan P. Onac, Joan J. Fornós, Carling Hay, Yemane Asmerom, Jeffrey A. Dorale, Joaquín Ginés, Paola Tuccimei, Angel Ginés. A highly resolved record of relative sea level in the western Mediterranean Sea during the last interglacial period. Nature Geoscience, 2018; DOI: 10.1038/s41561-018-0222-5
(behind a paywall)
Article | Published: 10 September 2018
A highly resolved record of relative sea level in the western Mediterranean Sea during the last interglacial period
• Victor J. Polyak,
• Bogdan P. Onac,
• Joan J. Fornós,
• Carling Hay,
• Yemane Asmerom,
• Jeffrey A. Dorale,
• Joaquín Ginés,
• Paola Tuccimei &
• Angel Ginés
Nature Geoscience (2018)
The magnitude and trajectory of sea-level change during marine isotope stage (MIS) 5e of the last interglacial period is uncertain. In general, sea level may have been 6–9 m above present sea level, with one or more oscillations of up to several metres superimposed. Here we present a well-dated relative sea-level record from the island of Mallorca in the western Mediterranean Sea for MIS-5e, based on the occurrence of phreatic overgrowths on speleothems forming near sea level. We find that relative sea-level in this region was within a range of 2.15 ± 0.75 m above present levels between 126,600 ± 400 and 116,000 ± 800 years ago, although centennial-scale excursions cannot be excluded due to some gaps in the speleothem record. We corrected our relative sea-level record for glacio-isostatic adjustment using nine different glacial isostatic models. Together, these models suggest that ice-equivalent sea-level in Mallorca peaked at the start of MIS-5e then gradually decreased and stabilized by 122,000 years ago, until the highstand termination 116,000 years ago. Our sea-level record does not support the hypothesis of rapid sea-level fluctuations within MIS-5e. Instead, we suggest that melting of the polar ice sheets occurred early in the interglacial period, followed by gradual ice-sheet growth.
The sea-level fingerprints of ice-sheet collapse during interglacial periods
Carling Hay, Jerry X. Mitrovica, Natalya Gomez, Jessica R. Creveling, Jacqueline Austermann, Robert E. Kopp.
Studies of sea level during previous interglacials provide insight into the stability of polar ice sheets in the face of global climate change. Commonly, these studies correct ancient sea-level highstands for the contaminating effect of isostatic adjustment associated with past ice age cycles, and interpret the residuals as being equivalent to the peak eustatic sea level associated with excess melting, relative to present day, of ancient polar ice sheets. However, the collapse of polar ice sheets produces a distinct geometry, or fingerprint, of sea-level change, which must be accounted for to accurately infer peak eustatic sea level from site-specific residual highstands. To explore this issue, we compute fingerprints associated with the collapse of the Greenland Ice Sheet, West Antarctic Ice Sheet, and marine sectors of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet in order to isolate regions that would have been subject to greater-than-eustatic sea-level change for all three cases. These fingerprints are more robust than those associated with modern melting events, when applied to infer eustatic sea level, because: (1) a significant collapse of polar ice sheets reduces the sensitivity of the computed fingerprints to uncertainties in the geometry of the melt regions; and (2) the sea-level signal associated with the collapse will dominate the signal from steric effects. We evaluate these fingerprints at a suite of sites where sea-level records from interglacial marine isotopes stages (MIS) 5e and 11 have been obtained. Using these results, we demonstrate that previously discrepant estimates of peak eustatic sea level during MIS5e based on sea-level markers in Australia and the Seychelles are brought into closer accord.