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Sea-level rise: Greetings from Yucatán

In a Mexican eco park, of all places, scientists have found compelling evidence that sea-levels can rise – nah, jump – at scary rates during warm climates such as ours.

That the global sea-level can rise by almost half a metre per decade when huge glaciers melt towards the end of an ice age has already been known. But a paper in Nature today (Editor’s summary) suggests that a similar jump has occurred at the close of the sea-level ‘highstand’ during the warm period, the Eemian Interglacial.

The team, led by Paul Blanchon of the National Autonomous University of Mexico in Cancun, analyzed the age structure of exceptionally well-exposed coral reefs at Xcaret, a popular theme park on the northeast Yucatán peninsula. Because no earthquakes have occurred in the more recent geological history of the region, the peninsula is an ideal location to study sea-level behaviour.

The team found that at the end of the last interglacial many reefs were flooded and replaced by new reefs on higher ground. Age and layering of the corals indicate that a rapid 2-3 metres jump in sea-level occurred around 121,000 years ago, possibly within less than one century.

Only swift and substantial melting of Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets can explain the extreme rate at which the seal level rose to its highstand some 4-6 metres above today’s sea-level.

The implications for our warming planet are clear. As modern temperatures approach those at the height of the Eemian Interglacial, the rate of seal-level rise could soon – perhaps very soon – shift gear, from modest to catastrophic.

The spectacular break-up of the Wilkins Ice shelf off the Antarctic Peninsula is a reminder that we are getting closer to the point where things could get really nasty.

“Given the dramatic disintegration of ice shelves and discovery of rapid ice loss from both the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets, the potential for sustained rapid ice loss and catastrophic sea-level rise in the near future is confirmed by our discovery of sea-level instability at the close of the last interglacial,” the authors conclude.

Quirin Schiermeier


  1. Report this comment

    George Tobin said:

    1) I wonder if the fact that prior to the last big interglacial period 120-130,000 years ago, there was one hell of a lot more ice on land than now is why there was such a dramatic rise when it melted? How is that remotely comparable to today?

    2) Not even the IPCC bothers with that kind of speculation about monster sea level rise in the present day, gradual or otherwise. We are still measuring change in the range of a few millimeters.

    3) I don’t think there is much mileage left in this kind of gee-whiz non-sequitur scaremongering. There are lots of good reasons to move away from fossil fuels but sophomoric conjure about BS disaster scenarios is not one of them.

    4) By the way, how is it that there were such dramatic climate shifts in the pre-SUV era? Is the cause for that flux incorporated in the present AGW forecasts or does the handle of the hockey stick stay flat as it extends back through the ice ages as well?

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