Scientists Discover Evidence for Past High-Level Sea Rise

The bulbous stalactitic feature in the center of this photo is a phreatic overgrowth on speleothems (POS) that grew exactly at sea level and therefore represents an accurate relative sea level ~3.5 million years ago.  (Image: UNM Newsroom)
The bulbous stalactitic feature in the center of this photo is a phreatic overgrowth on speleothems (POS) that grew exactly at sea level and therefore represents an accurate relative sea level ~3.5 million years ago. (Image: UNM Newsroom)

An international team of scientists, studying evidence preserved in speleothems in a coastal cave, illustrate that more than 3 million years ago — a time in which the Earth was two to three degrees Celsius warmer than the pre-industrial era — sea level was as much as 16 meters higher than the present day.

Their findings represent significant implications for understanding and predicting the pace of current-day sea level rise amid a warming climate. The scientists, including Professor Yemane Asmerom and Sr. Research Scientist Victor Polyak from The University of New Mexico, the University of South Florida, Universitat de les Illes Balears, and Columbia University, published their findings in the journal Nature.

The bulbous stalactitic> Feature in the center of this photo is a phreatic overgrowth on speleothems (POS) that grew exactly at sea level and therefore represents an accurate relative sea level ~3.5 million years ago. (Image: UNM Newsroom)

The bulbous stalactitic. Feature in the center of this photo is a phreatic overgrowth on speleothems (POS) that grew exactly at sea level and therefore represents an accurate relative sea level ~3.5 million years ago. (Image: UNM Newsroom)

The analysis of deposits from Artà Cave on the island of Mallorca in the western Mediterranean Sea produced sea levels that serve as a target for future studies of ice sheet stability, ice sheet model calibrations, and projections of future sea-level rise, the scientists said.

Sea level rises as a result of melting ice sheets, such as those that cover Greenland and Antarctica. However, how much and how fast sea level will rise during warming is a question scientists have worked to answer.

Reconstructing ice sheet and sea-level changes during past periods when the climate was naturally warmer than today, provides an Earth’s scale laboratory experiment to study this question according to USF Ph.D. student Oana Dumitru, the lead author, who did much of her dating work at UNM under the guidance of Asmerom and Polyak. Polyak said:

USF Department of Geosciences Professor Bogdan Onac said:

The project focused on cave deposits known as phreatic overgrowths on speleothems. The deposits form in coastal caves at the interface between brackish water and cave air each time the ancient caves were flooded by rising sea levels.

In Artà Cave, which is located within 100 meters of the coast, the water table is — and was in the past — coincident with sea level, says Professor Joan J. Fornós of Universitat de les Illes Balears.

A closeup of the bulbous stalactitic feature of a phreatic overgrowth on speleothems (POS). (Image: UNM Newsroom)

A closeup of the bulbous stalactitic feature of a phreatic overgrowth on speleothems (POS). (Image: UNM Newsroom)

The scientists discovered, analyzed, and interpreted six of the geologic formations found at elevations of 22.5 to 32 meters above present sea level. Careful sampling and laboratory analyses of 70 samples resulted in ages ranging from 4.4 to 3.3 million years old BP (Before Present), indicating that the cave deposits formed during the Pliocene epoch.

The ages were determined using uranium-lead radiometric dating in UNM’s Radiogenic Isotope Laboratory, Asmerom said:

Columbia University Assistant Professor Jacky Austermann, a member of the research team, used numerical and statistical models to carefully analyze how much uplift or subsidence might have happened since the Pliocene and subtracted this from the elevation of the formations they investigated. She explained:

One key interval of particular interest during the Pliocene is the mid-Piacenzian Warm Period — some 3.264 to 3.025 million years ago — when temperatures were 2° to 3°C higher than pre-industrial levels. Onac said:

This study found that during this period, global mean sea level was as high as 16.2 meters (with an uncertainty range of 5.6 to 19.2 meters) above present. This means that even if atmospheric CO2 stabilizes around current levels, the global mean sea level would still likely rise at least that high, if not higher, the scientists concluded.

In fact, it is likely to rise higher because of the increase in the volume of the oceans due to rising temperature. Dumitru said:

The authors also measured sea level at 23.5 meters higher than present about 4 million years ago during the Pliocene Climatic Optimum, when global mean temperatures were up to 4°C higher than pre-industrial levels. Asmerom added:

Provided by: [Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.]

Follow us on Twitter or subscribe to our weekly email

Shi Dakai Valued Righteousness Above Material Interests
The World's Top 10 Cities With Most Surveillance Cameras