Review

Sea-level rise due to polar ice-sheet mass loss during past warm periods

Science  10 Jul 2015:
Vol. 349, Issue 6244,
DOI: 10.1126/science.aaa4019

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Warming climate, melting ice, rising seas

We know that the sea level will rise as climate warms. Nevertheless, accurate projections of how much sea-level rise will occur are difficult to make based solely on modern observations. Determining how ice sheets and sea level have varied in past warm periods can help us better understand how sensitive ice sheets are to higher temperatures. Dutton et al. review recent interdisciplinary progress in understanding this issue, based on data from four different warm intervals over the past 3 million years. Their synthesis provides a clear picture of the progress we have made and the hurdles that still exist.

Science, this issue 10.1126/science.aaa4019

Structured Abstract

BACKGROUND

Although thermal expansion of seawater and melting of mountain glaciers have dominated global mean sea level (GMSL) rise over the last century, mass loss from the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets is expected to exceed other contributions to GMSL rise under future warming. To better constrain polar ice-sheet response to warmer temperatures, we draw on evidence from interglacial periods in the geologic record that experienced warmer polar temperatures and higher GMSLs than present. Coastal records of sea level from these previous warm periods demonstrate geographic variability because of the influence of several geophysical processes that operate across a range of magnitudes and time scales. Inferring GMSL and ice-volume changes from these reconstructions is nontrivial and generally requires the use of geophysical models.

ADVANCES

Interdisciplinary studies of geologic archives have ushered in a new era of deciphering magnitudes, rates, and sources of sea-level rise. Advances in our understanding of polar ice-sheet response to warmer climates have been made through an increase in the number and geographic distribution of sea-level reconstructions, better ice-sheet constraints, and the recognition that several geophysical processes cause spatially complex patterns in sea level. In particular, accounting for glacial isostatic processes helps to decipher spatial variability in coastal sea-level records and has reconciled a number of site-specific sea-level reconstructions for warm periods that have occurred within the past several hundred thousand years. This enables us to infer that during recent interglacial periods, small increases in global mean temperature and just a few degrees of polar warming relative to the preindustrial period resulted in ≥6 m of GMSL rise. Mantle-driven dynamic topography introduces large uncertainties on longer time scales, affecting reconstructions for time periods such as the Pliocene (~3 million years ago), when atmospheric CO2 was ~400 parts per million (ppm), similar to that of the present. Both modeling and field evidence suggest that polar ice sheets were smaller during this time period, but because dynamic topography can cause tens of meters of vertical displacement at Earth’s surface on million-year time scales and uncertainty in model predictions of this signal are large, it is currently not possible to make a precise estimate of peak GMSL during the Pliocene.

OUTLOOK

Our present climate is warming to a level associated with significant polar ice-sheet loss in the past, but a number of challenges remain to further constrain ice-sheet sensitivity to climate change using paleo–sea level records. Improving our understanding of rates of GMSL rise due to polar ice-mass loss is perhaps the most societally relevant information the paleorecord can provide, yet robust estimates of rates of GMSL rise associated with polar ice-sheet retreat and/or collapse remain a weakness in existing sea-level reconstructions. Improving existing magnitudes, rates, and sources of GMSL rise will require a better (global) distribution of sea-level reconstructions with high temporal resolution and precise elevations and should include sites close to present and former ice sheets. Translating such sea-level data into a robust GMSL signal demands integration with geophysical models, which in turn can be tested through improved spatial and temporal sampling of coastal records.

Further development is needed to refine estimates of past sea level from geochemical proxies. In particular, paired oxygen isotope and Mg/Ca data are currently unable to provide confident, quantitative estimates of peak sea level during these past warm periods. In some GMSL reconstructions, polar ice-sheet retreat is inferred from the total GMSL budget, but identifying the specific ice-sheet sources is currently hindered by limited field evidence at high latitudes. Given the paucity of such data, emerging geochemical and geophysical techniques show promise for identifying the sectors of the ice sheets that were most vulnerable to collapse in the past and perhaps will be again in the future.

Peak global mean temperature, atmospheric CO2, maximum global mean sea level (GMSL), and source(s) of meltwater.

Light blue shading indicates uncertainty of GMSL maximum. Red pie charts over Greenland and Antarctica denote fraction (not location) of ice retreat.

Abstract

Interdisciplinary studies of geologic archives have ushered in a new era of deciphering magnitudes, rates, and sources of sea-level rise from polar ice-sheet loss during past warm periods. Accounting for glacial isostatic processes helps to reconcile spatial variability in peak sea level during marine isotope stages 5e and 11, when the global mean reached 6 to 9 meters and 6 to 13 meters higher than present, respectively. Dynamic topography introduces large uncertainties on longer time scales, precluding robust sea-level estimates for intervals such as the Pliocene. Present climate is warming to a level associated with significant polar ice-sheet loss in the past. Here, we outline advances and challenges involved in constraining ice-sheet sensitivity to climate change with use of paleo–sea level records.

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